Eugene Robinson Live

Apr 23, 2013

Live chat with Eugene Robinson about politics and his latest column.

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Hello, everyone, and welcome to our weekly discussion. I was away on vacation last week. Did I miss anything? Actually, I seem to have missed EVERYTHING. Today's column scratches the surface -- dealing with the contrast between what our society is willing to do to prevent terrorism and what we're (not) willing to do to prevent 30,000 gun deaths a year. Lots to talk about today, so let's get started.

Why is it that Republicans want it to be easier for anyone to buy a gun than it is for them to vote? Why, if gun laws will be ineffective and should therefore not exist, do they so badly want to pass laws restricting abortion, gay rights, and due process? Can you explain the Republican brain at all????

I try my best. Seriously, I don't know how anyone maneuvers around these contradictions, but somehow the GOP manages. The struggle between the party's libertarian and social-conservative wings will be interesting in the coming years, as will be the tug of war between the isolationists and the defense lobby.

Mr. Robinson, can you really say with any honesty, that the background check proposal, would have made any difference to the multiple murders in our large cities or prevent any of the shootings, i.e. AZ or CO or CT?

Of course I can. Would background checks stop all murders or mass shootings? Certainly not. But it is plainly obvious that they would they stop some of them. If you take one loaded gun out of the hands of one would-be shooter, you will save lives. If you really take background checks seriously, you save many lives.

If 30,000 people per year died from Tainted Beef or bad pharmaceuticals, or plane crashes, or product safety issues, or any number of things, a mob would be on the steps of Congress demanding that some action be taken. But when 30,000 people die from gun violence per year, it's our God given freedom (according to the NRA). How is it that the NRA has convinced the majority of Congress that 30,000 gun deaths per year are anyhow different than any other t ype of death?

I don't understand it. I really don't. But I know when this madness will end: When people who want to reduce gun violence care as passionately about the issue as does the NRA. When politicians begin losing elections because they support the NRA, rather than because they oppose it, we'll get action.

When, oh when are we Americans going to realize that gun violence IS a form of terrorism? When I (a single woman who used to live literally around the corner from the site of the second Boston Marathon bomb) am afraid to walk at night or walk in certain places, is that not terrorism? If people worry that their kids are going to get gunned down in first grade or college, is that not terrorism? How often do three people (the number of deaths in the Boston attacks) get shot to death in one day or night in each of our major cities?

Well said.

Will there ever be criminal charges in the Texas explosion? Seems to me that killing 14 people through gross negligence and lying to DHS should carry more than just civil penalties.

That's a very good question, and I don't know the answer. Apparently the fertilizer plant was storing a quantity of ammonium nitrate (I think that's what it was; one of you participants probably knows the chemistry better than I) that should have been reported to Homeland Security. It's unclear to me whether it was the plant's owners or state officials who failed to make that report -- and also unclear whether reporting would have prevented the explosion. But your general point is right: If there was provable negligence, seems to me that people ought to go to jail.

Gene, I have no problem with expanded background checks. They are a worthy goal. However I am disappointed when people take to relatively disjointed events and pretend there is a tie in. Expanded checks would not have stopped these attacks nor would it have stopped the killings in Connecticut. Both sides need to be more honest about the gun control situation. Criminals largely don't worry about background checks, and on top of that, they aren't going out to buy 2,000 dollar guns. They are buying cheap, relatively disposable already stolen guns. Background checks still have a place, but those pushing for them need to be honest about what it will actually achieve.

I don't know how or when the Tsarnaev brothers obtained their guns, so I don't know what impact background checks might have had. They wouldn't have stopped the pressure-cooker bombings, obviously. But an MIT police officer is dead and a transit police officer almost died -- both from bullets allegedly fired by the Tsarnaevs. Seems conceivable that a well-designed background-check system might flag someone recently investigated by the FBI for possible involvement in radical jihad.

Gene, your comment about stopping one shooter goes against our nations judicial system. We are a nation of innocent until proven guilty, and the burden is on the state, not the individual. To stop a shooter, should we just start locking more people up with a different level of proof than traditionally required by trial. Because if we can just save one life, its worth it right? Or we can realize, as you stated earlier, that we cannot stop all crimes. We can just impose reasonable standards. In your haste to ban ALL guns you are making some fairly overreaching statements.

Come on. I never said I wanted to ban all guns. We can talk about banning guns -- I would definitely start with assault weapons, and yes, we can define what an assault weapon is -- but the subject was background checks. There is always a balance between liberty and security. In many cases, I have argued on the liberty side -- notably, in opposing torture and other excesses of the Bush-era war against terror. But liberty does not require supersaturating our society with guns.

On the surface it is darkly ironic that while the nation unites against terror it is powerless against the gun lobby. You raise several cultural and societal issues, but when it comes down to it this is essentially a business matter. In your column you doubted whether the NRA would oppose background checks if as many people were killed by terrorists as were by guns. But the fact is they would. The NRA will always oppose any laws that will hurt guns sales just as Coca Cola would fight a junk food tax on junk food that would hurt their sales or just like insurance companies fighting national healthcare legislation. That's what trade organizations do. That guns kill people is irrelevant to the NRA. It's simply a product they push and make a living off of and will do whatever they can to protect their livelihood.

The crazy thing is that the manufacturers are more amenable to background checks -- or claim to be -- than the NRA which represents them. Maybe they're being disingenuous. Or maybe the tail really is wagging the dog.

Hi Gene- it's pretty clear now why Mark wanted his wife to run his campaign. This story is starting to seem like the train wreck that was Herman Cains last days (as a candidate). Two questions 1) What's you guess on the result? 2) why the heck do you take you kid away from a Super Bowl party to watch the game alone at your ex wife's house?

I saw a poll yesterday that showed Colbert-Busch leading Sanford by something like nine points. In the 1st District of South Carolina, for the GOP candidate to trail a Democrat by this kind of margin is crazy. I said a few weeks ago that for the GOP to lose the seat, it had to nominate Sanford; and then Sanford had to make the campaign all about his bid for personal redemption, rather than about the issues. So far, that's exactly what's happening.

After a long chain of bad news, I truly appreciate Mark Sanford doing his part to make us laugh again.

As do I. As they say on the Appalachian Trail, muchas gracias!

I'm all for increased gun control, and find the latest responsibilty shirking by Congress to be appalling. However, I don't for a minute buy the idea that increased gun control will reduce mass shootings, and in the grand scheme of things I don't think reducing them is really very important. What I do think we must reduce is the huge number of shootings with a small number of casualties (one, two, three, etc) that comprise the bulk of the 30,000 gun deaths per year. I suppose this is the consequency of looking purely at the numbers, and ignoring "the humanity" of the situation, or what will sell the most newspapers through sensationalism. Am I wrong? If not, why don't we hear more about this from political leaders and the media. The argument for gun control should be to reduce the number of thugs/gangmembers/miscreants running around with handguns shooting small numbers of people.

Of the 30,000 gun deaths annually, roughly two-thirds are suicides -- many of which would have been prevented if a gun had not been at hand. (Other methods of suicide tend to have much lower success rates.) So this is actually the biggest potential impact of sensible gun control. Which we're not even talking about.

What kind of thinking allows Republicans to scream about liberals taking away your 2nd Amendment rights, but promotes stripping an American citizen of his rights, even if the kid thinks he's a Chechen rebel? Do you think they honestly hold these views or is this based on a political calculation regarding immigration and xenophobia?

What kind of thinking? At a minimum, faulty thinking: I submit that the civilian justice system is demonstrably better at handling these terrorism cases than the military "enemy combatant" mumbo jumbo they're trying to sell. 

In the end, the most dangerous activity you will do all week is drive home on a Friday evening and try to avoid all the drunk drivers who just spent the last 3 hours at happy hour.

I did a column a few years ago asking experts to assess and rank the risks in our lives. Terrorism, unsurprisingly, ranks very low; you have almost zero chance of being injured or killed in a terrorist attack. Traffic accidents should be much more of a concern. And the next time you hear about a flu pandemic coming our way, pay attention. That's serious business.

Gene, A lot of observers have cited the passion gap as one explanation for why some gun control proposals may enjoy 90% approval from the public (as this recent one did), but still fail - the 10% are guaranteed to vote on that issue alone, while the 90% will not. Just to get into the hypotheticals here, exactly what type of nightmarish event would it take to close that passion gap?

It's quite possible that Newtown closed the gap. Congress just might not know yet.

Gene, Did you see that the AP twitter account was hacked today & used to make the DJ drop about 400 points. We should do everything we can to prevent these types of hacks, because one hack is one too many, even if we have to give up our freedoms to prevent this from happening. While I bet you disagree, how is this any different from your quote about preventing gun violence. People CAN die from cyber attacks, and they have major ramifications as the stock market just showed.

Wow, I just saw that story. Incredible. I confess that I don't feel fully educated on cybersecurity issues, but I don't disagree with your basic point at all. This sort of hack can have real-world consequences. If we're going to live in cyberspace we're going to have to find the right balance between liberty and security, just as in what we used to call "the real world."

Now that we know that torturing detainees was official United States policy after September 11th, will news organizations use the word "torture" instead of "harsh interrogation" or "extreme methods"? It is infuriating to see journalists use terms that are designed to hide the truth, and defending the use of torture by calling it something else reveals either cowardice or depravity on the part of the writer. Your thoughts? Many thanks.

Don't look at me. I've used the word torture since George W. Bush made it the policy of the United States government.

Glad you're back, Gene. I'm curious as to why there hasn't been a coordinated attempt to create a single organization to counter NRA lobbying and financial support. I'm thinking of a group that says to candidates, "We'll counter dollar for dollar any money the NRA offers to give you during your campaign" or suchlike. I keep reading that NRA supporters are so much more committed than gun control folks are. But if we're any example, my wife and I have decided we'd forego other expenses and give $1000 to any such organization. And with million/billion-aires like Bloomberg behind it the amount that could be raised seems enormous.

Bloomberg's group Mayors Against Illegal Guns is the closest thing to what you're talking about. There's also a new group founded by Gabby Giffords and her husband. What's new is that for the first time, the gun lobby's millions will be matched -- or, in some cases, surpassed. Does money matter in politics? You bet it does.


That's all for today, folks. My time is up. See you again next week!

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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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