If you, like the majority of Americans, think it's a good idea to regulate the sale and possession of firearms and maybe even ban high-capacity rapid-fire weapons that are designed to kill large numbers of people in short amounts of time, then you probably have high hopes for the work of Vice President Joe Biden and North Coast Congressman Mike Thompson, both of whom are convening high-level committees to address the gun issue.
But it's important to temper those hopes with a recognition that gun-control measures trigger a visceral reaction among a small segment of the gun-owning population that believes any gun regulation is a threat to the Constitution that must be opposed at all costs.
Unfortunately, this group is represented by the National Rifle Association, which has the funding and political clout to do just that.
One small example: In 1999, following the mass shootings that killed 14 students — including the two perpetrators — at Columbine High School, several California counties, including Sonoma County, moved to ban gun shows at county fairgrounds and other county-owned facilities.
The NRA immediately challenged the ban, backing a suit against Alameda County. That lawsuit challenging the Alameda ban ricocheted around state and federal appeals courts for years. Last year, facing yet another round of expensive legal maneuvering, Alameda County essentially raised the white flag and said it no longer would ban gun shows on its property, but would require all guns for sale to be unloaded, locked and attached to sales tables with cables.
This is how gun control works in America. With great difficulty, with great cost and with little result.
Vice President Biden knows this. But, he said this week, "We are not going to get caught up in the notion unless we can do everything, we're not going to do anything." He vowed that he and President Barack Obama are "determined to take action" in the wake of last month's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"The time to act is now," said Thompson, D-St. Helena, a veteran and a hunter who will hold a forum on the issue starting at 6:30 tonight at the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors' chambers. "The American people want something done."
He's right; we do. Americans understand that the Second Amendment does not guarantee the right of some angry employee or disturbed young man to go into a workplace or movie theater or elementary school with weaponry capable of killing dozens of people within the space of a few minutes. Americans know that an AR-15 isn't a hunting rifle, and a 30-bullet clip wasn't on the minds of the founders who wrote about our right to "keep and bear arms."
But Thompson also understands the politics of the issue, and the power of the gun lobby. In an interview with staff writer Guy Kovner last week, he refused to use the phrase "gun control." Those words, he said, "create a divide that's not bridgeable."
Perhaps that's true. But America needs better gun control. It's not a goal that is out of reach. We had a national ban on assault weapons, and even though it was shot full of loopholes it was better than no ban at all. Bring it back, beef it up, enforce it. Take a close look at California's gun laws, which are the strictest in the nation, and figure out ways to apply those in other parts of the country. Clamp down on ammunition sales so that a person acquiring 6,000 rounds of ammunition, as did the shooter in last year's Colorado theater massacre, raises a red flag for law enforcement.
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