In the News

Dan Haar: Gun debate may have tipped; have we seen this before?

By Dan Haar
Saturday, March 3, 2018

It’s been a hectic week in gun violence prevention, leading to a question: Have gun-control advocates turned a corner to where Second Amendment stalwarts can’t halt meaningful laws?

“I think we’ve really reached a tipping point,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Friday in East Hartford at a forum on school safety.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a tipping point on this movement,” Sen. Chris Murphy said later Friday, after a gun-violence forum that both senators hosted in Greenwich.

These are two of the leading gun-control battlers in Congress and if there’s any political difference between them on the issue, I can’t describe it. Both are in the trenches fighting not only for universal background checks in gun purchases, but checks using stricter standards, as Connecticut deploys.

And since Sandy Hook, both have fought to nationalize the ban Connecticut adopted on military-style, semiautomatic rifles, which some people call “assault weapons.” A national ban on those “black rifles,” many of them AR-15 variations, won’t pass anytime soon – tipping point or not.

The question about a tipping point doesn’t necessarily affect how lawmakers act, but it does shape the debate. If Blumenthal is right, we should see quick action on measures that can actually pass – such as a bill to plug holes in the national criminal database system, or NICS, which Murphy rolled out with Texas Republican John Cornyn.

That bill has the support of the industry, including the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, which launched a “FixNICS” effort of its own in 2012.

More broadly, the tipping point question – it’s not really a debate – affects how we view guns and gun laws in American culture as spring dawns in 2018, after three mass shootings in five months at a concert, a church and a high school. And it will shape the election, as Blumenthal, at least, believes Republicans are running scared as they try to hold onto the House and Senate.

“If you have any doubt that this nation has reached a tipping point in gun violence prevention, look at the passion and energy of students marching on the streets and state capitals, look at the businesses revoking their affiliations with the NRA,” Blumenthal said. “This movement has momentum as never before.”

Gaining Power

Murphy also sees momentum.

“I think this is about a slow, gradual building of political power,” he said. “If you look at polling of public attitudes on guns, while this is the highest level of people wanting gun laws to change, it’s been a gradual increase over the last 20 years.”

“We are stronger every single day and at some point that power will force serious change,” Murphy added.

Polls show just about all Americans favor universal background checks – 97 percent, according to a Feb. 20 Quinnipiac University poll, which also showed that voters support stricter gun laws by more than 2 to 1.

Tipping point or not, the question is whether and when we’ll see laws adopted that the gun lobby has traditionally opposed. Industry executives aren’t commenting on overall momentum, rather on individual measures, many of which executives say would impede constitutional rights without adding safety.

“Effective solutions exist that will make our communities safer and protect children,” said Larry Keane, general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents manufacturers and retailers, in a white paper posted this week opposing the idea of raising the gun-buying age to 21. “The key is ensuring unauthorized individuals do not have access to any firearm of any kind at any time.”

Joe Bartozzi, executive vice president and general counsel at O.F. Mossberg & Sons, in North Haven, said the details in each proposal matter a lot, and for many of the ideas, there is not yet legal language nor a full debate.

“The biggest concern in all this is a rush to do something, but rushed legislation is not always good legislation,” said Bartozzi, a NSSF board member.

Sea change

Evidence since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., points to a sea change, if not a rush.

It started as Murphy blamed his colleagues for not acting, in a speech at the senate podium – as the tragedy was happening – and suffered only scant criticism for it. Quickly, surviving Parkland students formed the core of a coast-to-coast youth movement the likes of which we rarely see.

“These kids are raised and weaned on social media and they are incredibly facile at it,” said Josh Koskoff, attorney for nine Sandy Hook families that are suing the gunmaker, distributor and retailer in the 2012 murders.

Public outrage was just as strong after Sandy Hook but there’s nothing like seeing teenagers take up a cause on behalf of their friends and peers.

Two big retailers, Dicks’ Sporting Good and Walmart, tightened gun sales rules, as Dick’s stopped selling AR-15 rifles and Walmart, which did that in 2015, raised the buying age for firearms to 21. Koskoff, of the Bridgeport firm Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, then fired off a letter to Bass Pro Shops, asking the Missouri company to halt AR-15 and other military-style weapons sales.

As of late Friday, Bass Pro had not responded to Koskoff, nor to my request for comment.

On Friday, Blumenthal said the national Red Flag legislation he’s co-sponsoring with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham – a bill that would allow authorities to temporarily take weapons from potentially dangerous people who had not committed crimes – has another GOP supporter.

He wouldn’t name the senator, and an aide to Graham said he knows of no other Republican supporter, although Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has discussed something similar. Just the fact that we’re talking about Republicans backing a bill the gun industry opposes is evidence of a new era.

Several companies broke affiliation ties with the NRA, among them Delta Air Lines, which promptly suffered the loss of a tax exemption at the hands of conservative lawmakers in its home state of Georgia.

In Connecticut, state Treasurer Denise L. Nappier, urged by Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, said she would consider, for the first time, divesting holdings in gun companies if her shareholder activism falls short. The state holds $16.5 million in five companies, about one-twentieth of 1 percent of fund totals.

Oh, and President Donald Trump, who hosted the NRA boss on the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy just three months ago, appeared to favor two strong measures on Wednesday in a meeting with Murphy – the Red Flag bill and universal checks. Trump hedged on Thursday after a visit from NRA lobbyists.

“I don’t think it’s any surprise that the White House is going to bob and weave on this,” Murphy said. “It was probably inevitable that he was going to walk those back.”

The key, Murphy said, is for Trump to settle on a position and push Republicans in Congress to support it.

Put it all together and it does seem like a tipping point, or at least a sudden momentum change that won’t abate. But we’ve thought this before, at least as far back as the Stockton, Calif. shooting in 1989 when five children were murdered, and Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook.

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