Can Lawmakers Prevent Mass Shootings?

Dec 18, 2012

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, now that a couple of states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, can parents still tell their kids to just say no? We'll hear from a pediatrician who works with substance-addicted teens about why it's still important to have the talk about drug use, and to pay attention to what you as a parent are modeling with your own behavior. That's coming up.

But, first we want to talk about a new debate that's gathering force in Washington and around the country about gun control. That's of course coming in the wake of the shooting in Connecticut that left 28 people, including 20 children and the gunman dead. The carnage has caused a number of lawmakers who have been hostile to gun control in the past to say that they are now rethinking their positions.

So we thought this would be a good time to call two of our political analysts to talk about this. Keli Goff is a political correspondent for TheRoot.com. That's an online publication. Also with us once again, Ron Christie. He's a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He's now the president of Christie's Strategies, a media and political strategy firm.

Welcome back to you both. Thank you both for joining us.

KELI GOFF: It's great to be back.

RON CHRISTIE: Nice to be with you.

MARTIN: Ron Christie, traditionally Republicans are associated with a very expansive view of gun rights, but there has been legislation in the past the Republicans have supported, at least some. For example, there was a 10-year ban on so-called assault weapons that was passed in 1994 that later expired, you know, 10 years later.

What are the conversations now going on among Republican lawmakers about this?

CHRISTIE: Very spirited, from the people I've spoken to on Capitol Hill. And I think it divides in two camps. One, which people believe that the constitution enshrines the right to bear arms in the Second Amendment and that gun control legislation won't address the terrible tragedy of what happened.

And then number two, I think there's a group that says, OK, the Second Amendment does enshrine that right but does it enshrine the right to have armor-piercing bullets? Does it enshrine the right to have military-type weaponry? And I vividly remember this conversation, Michel, because I worked for then-Congressman John Kasich who's now the governor of Ohio as his legislative director in 1994.

And we wrestled with this for days and he ended up voting - one of the handful of Republicans who voted for it at the time. And if you look at the specifics of that legislation of a grenade launcher, a bayonet mount, a pistol grip, that you come to say these are designed to kill people rather than to hunt. And so it's a very spirited debate in the Republican circles on Capitol Hill now.

MARTIN: Keli, important to note, though, it's not just the Republican Party that's been opposed to more gun control in the past. There are a number of Democratic senators who have so-called A ratings from the National Rifle Association which is the most, you know, prominent gun rights lobby. Democratic senator Mark Warner from Virginia, for example, is one of those.

He told WTVR TV in Richmond, though, that the status quo has to change. Let me just play a short clip from him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

REPRESENTATIVE MARK WARNER: I've had an NRA rating of an A but, you know, enough is enough. I've got - I'm the father of three daughters and this weekend they all said, Dad, you know, how can this go on? And I, like I think most of us, realize that there are ways to get to rational gun control.

MARTIN: We heard similar remarks, for example, from Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia who's also had a so-called A rating from the NRA and he says everything has to be on the table now. What kinds of conversations are going on among Democrats on this?

GOFF: Well, I don't know specifically in terms of, you know, what they're actually strategizing about but I will say - and another person I think on this list, and correct me if I'm wrong here, is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Right? He's always had a very high rating from the NRA which a lot of people sometimes forget.

But that actually instrumental when he was in that tight race a few years back. But, look, I will say this. I think what's interesting, Michel, is that I have really never met a person who is truly against any form of gun control. I really haven't. And I'm not saying that to be funny. I'm not saying that to be flip. I mean I've very rarely met someone who says I am a huge fan of Osama bin Laden.

I think what he did was great. I'm going to join a couple of groups who are interested in hurting Americans. Oh, and by the way, I'd like to have access to a AK-47 this afternoon and show up at an elementary school. I'm not going to tell you why I'm going. I have not met a person who says they think that's OK. Right?

So I think at this point the reality is setting in that the majority of Americans do support gun control, regardless of party affiliation. The quibbling in our country has always been on how far, how much. And I think that, you know, as polls were breaking just in the last 48 hours showing that the number of Americans who were willing to have a bigger conversation, a larger conversation, of expanding how much gun control we have in this country, the numbers have shot up something like 20 points.

Since the last time they polled on this issue. Twenty points. So that's a huge increase. So I think that we shouldn't be surprised to see that a lot of politicians on both sides of aisle who were fearful of the NRA and therefore fearful of really talking about expanding some of these measures are going to find their courage again in a way they didn't find it after the Aurora shooting because it was a couple months before an election. And that's just the truth.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you a little bit more about that and just by way of clarification. Harry Reid had a B rating from the NRA which is, you know, not bad but he wasn't considered one of their most favored legislators. But, you know, to your point, though, you also wrote an interesting piece.

And this is a point of view that's been much discussed in African-American-oriented media where you made the point that movement on gun policy tends to happen when the people who are the targets are people whom lawmakers identify with.

GOFF: Right.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more about that? Which is kind of a sad thing in a way, if you think about it.

GOFF: Yeah.

MARTIN: But maybe it's a human thing. I don't know.

GOFF: Yeah. You know, it's interesting because as tragic as, you know, the loss of those 26 lives were in Newtown, I mean, the point that I made was that in Chicago this summer there were 26 young people shot in one night. Twenty-six. And yet a lot of people didn't know that till my column ran because that's how little coverage it got. Right?

And so the point I'm simply making is that, just like we saw after Columbine, where gun violence had been one of the leading causes of death of young black teens for, like, a decade and then after Columbine we get the Million Mom March. We get assault weapons banned. We get all this movement on it after - excuse me, the assault weapons ban didn't happen before Columbine.

But in terms of mobilization around the issue of gun control it didn't happen until it touched kids in the suburbs, you know, whose parents kind of look like a lot of our elected officials. And I want to be clear, though, Michel, you know, I think that the responsibility can't just be dropped in the lap of our elected officials because they only do what we allow them to. I think there has to be a responsibility borne on the part not just of voters and citizens but also the part of the media because we're dropping the ball if we allow stories like Newtown to dominate coverage, which it should - I'd much rather see that get coverage than Kardashian or the Petraeus scandal - but we should also have been covering the fact that more people died of gun violence in Chicago in the first half of this year than were killed in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: We're talking with Keli Goff of TheRoot.com and political strategist Ron Christie about political conversations happening in the wake of last week's shooting in Connecticut. You know, tough to turn to other matters but we do want to mention the other big political story that still is with us and not to diminish at all, of course, the emotion and the concern that we have for the families who are still dealing with this terrible situation in Connecticut that really has touched all of us.

But I do still want to talk about the other big issue on Capitol Hill which is the so-called fiscal cliff. That's that package of spending cuts and tax increases that will go into effect if the White House and Congress don't reach agreement. There are reports that the president and House speaker John Boehner are getting closer to a deal.

So, Ron, I'll ask you. Reports suggest that Speaker Boehner conceded that tax rates for some top earners would go up. Do you think that Republicans will buy into that? And, forgive me, if you don't mind, do you have some advice for the speaker in negotiating this deal that you could share with us?

(LAUGHTER)

CHRISTIE: I have to be very careful. John Boehner's been a mentor of mine for 20 years. So any advice I might give him he might say, Christie, are you out of your mind? But on a serious note, I think the question has always revolved around revenue, Michel. And the amount of revenue that the president seeks to get from increasing tax rates in the amount of revenue that the speaker and House Republicans and those in the Senate seek to reduce in spending and reforming entitlements.

It appears that the two sides are getting closer but the question remains: can a bill pass the House of Representatives that would increase the tax rates of those either making $400,000, I've heard, or $1 million? Can that pass the House? The speaker and the president might agree to some sort of agreement to avert the fiscal cliff.

I am not entirely convinced, given the new leadership that will come into the House of Representatives just beneath the speaker, as well as some of the rank and file members, of whether they would support any increase in taxes. And I frankly - there was a closed-door meeting today that the speaker went and gave forth his latest discussions with the president.

But again, from what I've been hearing on Capitol Hill there are a lot of conservative members and a lot of Tea Party people who say no matter what Boehner cuts, we're not going to support it.

MARTIN: And Keli, you're on the other side. Progressives have been extremely vocal saying that they are not prepared to see that upper income taxpayers don't pay more, especially if entitlement programs like Medicaid and Medicare are gutted, in their view. What's your sense of this?

GOFF: Well, I'm sure Ron will feel free to correct me if he thinks I'm completely wrong. Because we often spar, Ron and I, and it's always friendly when we do. But what I was going to say is I think it's a given at this point that there will be tax hikes on those somewhere in the 1 percent. I think the only question mark now is exactly where they will be within the 1 percent.

I just think that that's going to have to be - just because the polling shows that most Americans don't have a problem with it, because most of us don't make more than $400,000 or $500,000 or $1 million. And, you know, you have conservatives like Bill Kristol and a bunch of others who said why the heck are we protecting these guys at the expense of the brand image of our party?

So I think that's going to be a given. I think the real question - the $1 million question, pun intended - is which tax payers it will be in the 1 percent. You know, we've already seen the compromise by the president thrown out there of, you know, even on the estate tax, raising it up to $3.5 million of who will face the 45 percent tax, as opposed to those in the $1 million.

It's popular with the majority of voters so I don't think that that's something Boehner can move on. Something else I'd say too, really quickly, is - I mean this is the least tacky way possible but I really think there are parallels a bit to what kind of happened with Hurricane Sandy, where the whole news cycle has shifted because of this Newtown tragedy and President Obama looks presidential and looks like he's the kind of person who has the best interest of Americans at heart.

That is just the nature of coverage of these types of situations. So I think it's kind of handicapped the Republicans a bit in terms of some of the leverage that they might have had, you know, a week or two ago. That's just one perspective.

MARTIN: Well, interesting. So thank you both for that. Unfortunately, we don't have time to talk about the other issue that you wrote about this week, and somebody you know, Ron, which is Tim Scott. South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who is a trailblazer in her own right, chose Republican congressman Tim Scott to replace outgoing Republican senator Jim DeMint.

This will make Scott the only sitting black senator and the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction. That's something we're going to have to talk about - just not today. Ron Christie is a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He's now president of Christie's Strategies.

Keli Goff's a political correspondent for TheRoot.com. They were both with us from our bureau in New York. Thank you both so much for joining us.

GOFF: Thanks, Michel.

CHRISTIE: Always a pleasure.

MARTIN: And there is some sad new from Capitol Hill to report. Senator Daniel Inouye, a Democrat serving Hawaii, died yesterday of respiratory complications. He was a war hero and a trailblazer, as well as the most senior current member of the Senate. He was 88 years old. I spoke with him last year on the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks and in his honor we are going to have an encore broadcast of that conversation. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Please stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.