Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, along with other members, address demonstrators on the East Front of the Capitol after the House Democrats' sit-in over gun control legislation.
( Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
DEBORAH AMOS: And I'm Deb Amos. A few minutes ago Rachael Larimore urged that gun issues be covered by gun beat reporters. And we found one. Lois Beckett covers guns for the Guardian US. This week, she published a series of pieces exploring the warped politics of gun control. Now, Beckett says it’s not just that reporters tend to botch the technical details, it’s that the entire debate is steered by outrage that follows mass shootings.
LOIS BECKETT: Mass shootings, if you look at the number of victims, they are something like 1 percent of overall gun murder victims. And if you let the circumstances of 1 percent of anything drive what you're trying to do to fix the other 99 percent, you’re going to fail.
DEBORAH AMOS: You often hear some of the same solutions, for example, Australia. There, after a mass shooting in 1996, there was a ban, there was a mandatory buyback of more than, what, 600,000 guns.
LOIS BECKETT: Up to a million in a couple of buybacks.
DEBORAH AMOS: And they melted them down. Even President Obama has, has cited Australia as, you know, this is the solution. You say no. Why?
LOIS BECKETT: You have to look at the big picture of Australia. Before the Port Arthur massacre, Australia had something like 67 gun murders a year. There was a dramatic drop after Australia melted down those million weapons. So it went from 67 to somewhere around 30. Thirty lives saved is very important but the scale of it is so vastly different from the United States. The scale of gun ownership there is so vastly different. The cost of melting down 1 million guns is a lot, something as high as $500 million. But in America, to do the equivalent reduction in the gun supply, we would have to confiscate 90 million guns. So you’re in billions of dollars. And also, you’re confiscating guns in a country with a Second Amendment, and people tell me that would just cause a civil war.
DEBORAH AMOS: Can you give me some examples of the ineffective solutions that we've sought that are fueled by this horror over mass shootings?
LOIS BECKETT: The assault weapon ban is a great example. These are weapons that are culturally repulsive to Democrats, to liberals, to non-gun owners. They look scary, they seem outrageous. In talking to gun control leaders from the early ‘90s and the late ‘80s, they said, you know, we knew from the beginning that if we eliminated them it wouldn’t make a huge difference, but people had this instinctive reaction to them. It was a popular in a way that some of the very technical, more effective gun violence prevention policies were not. And so, for more than 20 years, Democrats have fought for this policy that everyone feels passionately about and that everyone knows won’t make much of a difference.
We have tremendous coverage of school shootings in America and so we have spent, as a country, almost $1 billion since the Columbine school shootings to put police officers in schools. There is no evidence that putting police officers in schools is gonna do much good on that because these incidents are so rare. So we’re spending a tremendous amount of money because our emotions are focused on public schools’ need to be safe. And, at the same time, schools are sometimes cutting mental health counseling, they’re cutting intervention programs, and this misguided impulse might be actually making their students less safe.
DEBORAH AMOS: So what should we be talking about?
LOIS BECKETT: A few basic things. One, if you talk about gun violence in America, you have to talk about race and racism, because 15 of the 30 Americans murdered each day with guns are gonna be black men, and they’re something like 7 percent of the overall population. And most of America is actually quite safe. Even most of Chicago is quite safe. But there are very concentrated neighborhoods where the rates of gun homicide are equivalent to failed states. So to think of America as just a uniform place with a uniform gun problem is wrong. You have to say, this is a very concentrated problem among people who are extremely at risk in a lot of different ways. And we have to grapple with the complexity of that.
And one of the effects of having a lot of police officers in schools after Columbine may have been to fuel that school-to-prison pipeline, where students of color are taken from a normal school disciplinary process to the criminal justice system. So it’s a terrifying idea that we wanted to stop lone wolf young white man from shooting in schools and instead we put our young men of color in danger.
DEBORAH AMOS: The parents from Sandy Hook have come together as a lobbying group. They've really learned about gun control and they've made some interesting acknowledgments about what works and what doesn't. Can you talk about where they see the priority is?
LOIS BECKETT: So I was talking a lot to Nicole Hockley who lost her son Dylan. And you have to remember, like these are parents whose first-graders were killed with these horrific military- style weapons but when they took the time to look at why Americans were dying, you know, this was just not at the center of it. So they are focusing more now on universal background checks, on mental health, on intervention programs, on domestic violence gun laws. It was just amazing to talk to Nicole Hockley and to hear how hard it was for her to say, if we limited the size of ammunition magazines, maybe the shooter would have had to reload more often and maybe my kid would have gotten to run out of the room like some other kids, when he had to pause to reload. And yet, she doesn't think it's most important thing to fight for.
DEBORAH AMOS: And what does she think the most important thing to fight for is?
LOIS BECKETT: She and other parents put their lobbying efforts towards fighting for universal background checks because that's what they were told would do the most good.
DEBORAH AMOS: We have seen extraordinary scenes from Congress this week. Democrats were literally sitting on the floor of the House, forcing, trying to force a vote on gun legislation. Are they fighting for legislation that could save lives? Is it worth the stunt?
LOIS BECKETT: So when we think about the sort of no-fly, no-buy list, that basically means if you have people who are suspected of terrorism, we should be able to bar them from buying guns, and maybe even if they are no longer on a watch list but had been in previous years, that the FBI would be flagged if someone like Omar Mateen went out and bought a bunch of guns. This is something that, in some ways, make sense and could be valuable. There are real civil liberties concerns about this. These various watch lists are not transparent, and so you have the ACLU and many Democrats actually totally outraged that Democrats were doing this.
Would it help to somehow address suspected terrorists and maybe make it a bit harder for them to buy guns, in some way? Sure. Will that have any impact on overall gun violence? No. Universal background checks are more complicated. That’s something that a lot of people think would do good. We don’t actually have good data to know how much. A lot of people are making a big bet that it will help, but it's really important that it was universal background checks and not an assault weapon ban that is at the center of this fight, because at least universal background checks could potentially make a difference to overall violence. So that’s a step forward.
DEBORAH AMOS: Are we looking in the wrong place? Is it gun control legislation that reduces gun violence in America or is it something else? Is it mental health prevention? Is it community policing?
LOIS BECKETT: That was what was so amazing to me in covering this, is that even as the national conversation was saying that there's a stalemate and they’re just making no progress, there are cities in America that have made dramatic progress by focusing on the small number of young man driving the shootings in very dangerous neighborhoods and intervening with them in ways that offer social services, also offer threats of law enforcement crackdowns.
It turns out, actually, that focusing on the people driving the violence can be tremendously effective. In Oakland, in New Orleans, you see substantial drops in overall homicide. So you have this incredible local movement that’s seeing some progress, and it’s only just beginning to translate into the national debate.
DEBORAH AMOS: This amazing moment in the House - political theater, a publicity stunt, whatever you want to call it - are we actually at some turning point where there is momentum to look at this issue and find something that actually reduces the numbers?
LOIS BECKETT: This debate has totally transformed because Democrats think this is an issue they can use to win. I mean, that's what gun control advocates and the more thoughtful politicians try to do after every mass shooting. They take that outrage and they take the immediate focus on things like the assault weapon ban, things that are emotional and triggering and probably not that helpful for the bigger picture and try to say, okay, can we pivot from the assault weapon ban to background checks? Can we take this rage and try to channel it to things that actually might work better?
And that's been really hard to do because in order to do that you have to understand that bigger picture. But usually the cycle happens so quickly that there's not even time enough for people to be informed before it drops off the radar and it stops being covered, and then we’re back again at the very beginning, having learned nothing.
DEBORAH AMOS: Those parents from Sandy Hook, did they see that this is a moment? It wasn't when their children were killed.
LOIS BECKETT: I remember talking to Nicole Hockley, I think, two days after Orlando, and she was so angry that this had happened again. And then one or two days later, Chris Murphy is on the floor of the Senate with the picture of Dylan wearing a Superman t-shirt.
SEN. CHRIS MURPHY: He loved to cuddle, he loved to play tag every single morning at the bus stop with the neighbors. He was so proud that he was learning how to read. And he’d bring a new book every day home.
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LOIS BECKETT: And Nicole watched it afterwards and cried and felt encouraged and believes that, that she’s on the right side of history, that we’re gonna fix this somehow.
DEBORAH AMOS: Thanks so much. Lois Beckett is a senior reporter covering gun policy and politics for Guardian US.