Not All Gun Owners Are Fanatics

There is room for sensible compromise on background check legislation.

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I focused my column last week on the National Rifle Association reaching an influence tipping point because of the uncompromising, unhinged views held by its leadership regarding sensible gun control proposals like the Manchin-Toomey universal background check legislation. Not surprisingly, it spurred a larger-than-usual volume of reader email, with some of comments ranging from the silly ("A. Hitler and Josef Goebbels would be proud of this o'bamaspeak [sic] 'Big Lie'") to the weirdly abstract (no message but a subject line saying, "i bet you drive a prius").

But I thought one note was worth passing on because it helped illuminate some aspects of my argument I might have done a better job elucidating. To wit: Not all gun owners are fanatics.

The reader, who did not give their name, wrote (and I've cleaned up slightly for style):

You and I seem to have deep philosophical differences on the United States Constitution and our 2nd Amendment Constitutional rights. Would you have law abiding citizens give up essential liberty because of the misguided actions of violent criminals and madmen?

Former President Bill Clinton [was] quoted in Politico warning gun-banners not to take their opponents for granted. "Do not patronize the passionate supporters of your opponents by looking down your nose at them. A lot of these people live in a world very different from the world lived in by the people proposing these things. I know because I come from this world."

[ See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

My response, in part:

For one thing it's not clear to me how the Manchin-Toomey legislation would require law-abiding citizens give up an essential liberty; it would not prevent law-abiding citizens from buying guns and it wouldn't prohibit any classes of guns from being built or owned. It would close a loophole in an existing background check regime.

This is hardly radical stuff. Despite what you suggest, we're not talking about gun-banning. That's not to say that there aren't gun-banners around, but it's not where the mainstream of pro-gun-control sentiment is any more than those who believe that machine guns and rocket launchers are protected by the Second Amendment is where the mainstream is at on that side of the discussion (as far as I can tell).

The Clinton quote is on target but also cuts both ways. This is a big country and has a host of cultural divides, many of them overlapping: urban v. rural, East v. West, coasts v. "heartland," North v. South, and of course gun owners v. non-gun-owners. Political problems develop when one side assumes that their cultural mores hold (or should hold) across the country without considering that other regions believe otherwise. But again that cuts both ways: Not only should those of us who favor sensible regulation of guns (note again: not gun-banning) not discount the world Clinton describes, but so too should gun-rights advocates understand where we are coming from.

But by the same token, as with most issues, there is room for sensible compromise because most people on both sides of the issue are not fanatics. As I wrote in my column, the idea of universal background checks enjoys overwhelming support even from gun owners and NRA members. By taking an uncompromising, maximalist position, the NRA, its leaders and their extremist allies are undercutting their putative position as representing gun owners and more broadly are weakening their own cause.

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Congress Support Universal Background Checks for Gun Purchases?]

Keep the responses coming. I enjoy the exchange of ideas even if we disagree.