Gun control advocate urges stricter laws after 370 mass shootings in US last year

Last year America saw more than 370 mass shootings - in which almost five hundred people were killed. Despite numerous calls to put pressure on gun owners and gun sellers and enforce laws that will save lives, the government is refusing to act.  In a country, where the right to bear arms is a constitutional pledge - are the authorities powerless to enact stricter gun control measures? Is there a way to put an end to the gun epidemic? We’re joined by Executive Director of Texas Gun Sense - an organization pushing for stricter gun control - Andrea Brauer.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Andrea Brauer, executive director of the Texas Gun Sense, organisation working on prevention of gun violence. Welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. There are around 300 millions guns in the U.S. - one for every man, woman and child in the country. Most Americans cite protection as the main reason for owning a gun, almost 80 per cent say they feel safer with a gun, according to a Pew research survey  - what are Americans so afraid of so that they need guns?

Andrea Brauer: Yeah, I think, primarily, it’s two things. One, we see mass shootings in the U.S. and we hear about tragedies and murders on a daily basis here. Although mass shootings, the terrible tragedies that happened in Oregon, and Virginia Tech and Newtown - aren’t what takes most people’s lives. That’s what people see and that’s what they get scared about, so that is why they purchase firearms. The statistics shows that there’s a big jump in gun purchases after tragedies like this. They think they’re safer with the gun, but a lot of studies have shown that people are actually less safe with a firearm, because they’re at higher risk of suicide, accidents, homicides, domestic violence and a family member accessing a gun that perhaps shouldn’t have one.

SS: The National Rifle Association - the NRA - one of the most powerful U.S. lobby groups - and gun enthusiasts stress that owning a gun is a right, but 55% of Americans, according to Gallup, are in favour of stricter gun sale laws, shouldn’t this majority also have a right to safety?

AB: Absolutely. I think the NRA is out of touch with most of Americans and their own members, who believe in, let’s say, background checks, which is the most effective tool that we can use  to ensure that guns don’t fall into the wrong hands. So, it’s unfortunate that the NRA has kind of carved out this special power and has so much influence in Washington because I don’t think it’s what most of Americans want. Most of our regulations on gun control lie at the state level, and when states put this measure to the ballot, for example in Washington state, recently, and they let voters choose, they overwhelmingly thought that background checks were the right thing for every gun sale in the state. When you let the voters decide, then often times, the reason and sensible gun laws prevail. Unfortunately, not all states can put those measures on a ballot like that.

SS: Since the issue of owning a gun often adds up to ‘feeling safe’, what is more potent - the right to feel safer owning a gun or the right to feel safer knowing that people are limited in their ability of owning guns?

AB: I think that they are both a valid right. We have the 2nd Amendment in place and we… the Heller case and the decision in 2008 said that individuals do have the right to bear arms, it’s not just the militia, so that right will continue on in the U.S.. The only thing that gun violence prevention groups like us want is more sort of oversight and security to ensure that people that shouldn’t have a gun, people that are on the ‘prohibited’ list don’t have guns. But, that does not infringe on a person’s right to bear arms. If you’re a law-abiding citizen, even with any proposal that gun violence prevention advocates bring forward, those people will still have the right to bear arms, to have their personal protection as they see fit. So, I don’t see them as incompatible issues, but, unfortunately, the public and the NRA has made this issue so polarising that that’s the way it has become in our country.

SS: While most U.S. citizens are in favour of stricter background checks - 85%,  in practice a lot voice fears over stricter gun controls, saying they don’t want to give up their weapons. How do you get the public to trust you? Convince them you won’t take away their guns?

AB: I don’t know how to do that. I mean, the greatest way we could do that is if we could partner with the gun rights groups and with the NRA and try to move forward and try to have concern and compassion for gun violence issue that’s happening in the country and knowing that… you know, it’s in the best interest of gun owners to keep guns out of the hands of felons and people convicted of domestic violence and abuse. So, I’m not sure. We had President Obama try to make some executive actions, and, of course, the NRA responds by saying that “he’s trying to take everyone’s guns away”. Well, if you really think about it, it’s illogical and it is not going to happen. We can’t go door to door, taking guns away, and the Constitution allows people to keep their guns. So, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Fortunately, you do have groups… more and more resources are being put into gun violence prevention movement, and even gun rights groups that are more reasonable are being formed, there’s even a national group of Gun Owners for Responsible Solutions that are joining in this effort to have a middle ground on this. So, hopefully, that momentum will continue to build and then, eventually, we can have a dialogue with the NRA.

SS: We’ve heard it a million times from NRA head - Wayne LaPierre - ‘the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’. Do good guys with guns really stop bad guys with guns? Are there statistics to back that up?

AB: No, in fact, there are statistics to prove the opposite. A study was done by the U.S. DoJ and the FBI in 2013 and they studied all Active Shooter incidents from 2000 to 2013, and only 3% of those incidents ended with “good guy with a gun” stopping a “bad guy with a gun”. I actually think it’s irresponsible, because it flies in the face of what our country, what our law enforcement is about. Trying to have citizens take the law into their own hands to stop situations with an active shooter that’s dangerous and dangerous for law enforcement when they do show up on the scene - to determine who’s the good guy and the bad guy - it’s not in the best interest of public safety, or individual safety, for that matter. So, I think it has been disproven, I  think it’s unfortunate that it’s keeps being touted by the NRA and local law officials, for that matter. I think we’re safer when let law enforcement handle matters like this.

SS: But the question is: is everyone who carries a gun really ready to use it in the combat situation? Because the proponents of the ‘good guy with a gun’....

AB: No, absolutely not.

SS:Yeah, they say that the more people carry guns, the safer everyone will be.

AB: That’s what that study disproved, that stopping an active shooter takes a lot of skill and training. Law enforcement officers go through hundreds of hours of training to do this, and the average person… I know, in Texas, I can say, it’s a 4-hour training to get a Concealed Handgun License, or license to License to Carry as we now have, so no, we think  that it’s inadequate and the training doesn’t focus on active shooter training, so I don’t think people are prepared for that, and we don’t see that happening. In the news reports, when we see mass shootings, we don’t see, even anecdotally, people coming out and sort of saving the day when these mass shootings happen. In Umpqua, Oregon, in October 2015 there was a Concealed Handgun License, a good guy with a gun at the scene, and he chose not to come forward and to intervene, because he was worried that law enforcement would not be able to tell who the good guy and the bad guy is. So, we really don’t have a lot of incidents of this happening, and, also, regardless of high number of guns we have in this country, most people don’t have Concealed Handgun Licenses in our country, so the chances when that incident happens, of a person being on a scene to take on that shooter are low. It’s minimal, it’s improbable. I don’t think we can rely on that, because we can’t make  people everywhere to purchase a gun and have it with them all times, despite what some people may want.

SS: The NRA used to support gun control decades ago and now it’s the biggest stumbling block - what happened? Why the change of stance?

AB: I think that, from what I understand in history, when the Gun Control Act was signed, that caused people to start to be concerned that there’s going to be a start of confiscations, the assault weapon ban that was reversed later… I think they started to be concerned, and there was a shift in the NRA: less about safety and sporting and more about lobbying and getting involved in legal matters and gun rights. So, yeah, it is unfortunate, as I say, it’s a difficult situation, all across the country for any gun violence prevention group to approach them and have a conversation with them about safety. They say that they’re concerned with safety, but they will not support laws that indeed have been proven to make people safer - like universal background checks. So, it’s unfortunate and I don’t have a good answer right now on how we bridge that divide or bring them back to what they used to be.

SS: Gun control opponents argue that federal law requires gun dealers to conduct background checks through the FBI database - and denials are rare, just 1%of the time. If that’s the case, why is there so much gun crime then?

AB: You can’t stop all crimes, you can’t stop all criminals from having a gun, it’s true. I don’t have the percentage off here, but I know hundreds of thousands of people have been denied from having a gun since the background laws were put into effect. So, we are stopping people with background checks, we are stopping felons, domestic abusers and people that have been adjudicated as mentally ill with background checks. That’s the only way to stop them, and statistics shows that states with strong gun laws have fewer gun deaths. That’s irrefutable. States with a lot of guns and F-rating from a Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence have higher gun deaths. So, stronger regulation and oversight, and especially background checks really do work and I think that’s what we need to keep pushing for nationwide.

SS: President Obama  took matters into his own hands - issuing executive orders aimed at expanding background checks, and other measures like hiring more agents to tackle gun-related crime. Is it working, has he put a system in place along with the order? 

AB: Not that I know of. Unfortunately, his orders, a lot of them require funding or require Congress to approve the funding for additional agents, for the mental health care and as far as I know from the ATF officer that I’ve spoken to recently, there has not been a new rule or any new directive to the ATF to license more gun dealers. You may know that the description of who has to be licensed in this country is vague and that's the problem, and that’s what allows hobbyists and private sellers and folks who go to gun sales to sell without a background check. Of course, President Obama wanted to change that, but without the resources and the legal authority to get them licensed, then nothing has happened right now. So, we’re at the state level know that if we want to move forward with reducing gun violence in our state, we need to take on this issue at the state level and try to have more sensible regulation and taxes. And I know that’s how other states  in our network feel as well.

SS: Obama’s executive order or any other time a government official raised the issue of gun control - that always scares people, drives gun sales up, plays into the gun lobby hands’. Are these measure doing more harm than good for the gun control advocates?

AB: I don’t think so. The gun violence prevention community was very excited about what President Obama did and we really appreciated what President Obama did. It was the best movement for our cause in, probably, 20 years. Yes, we were hoping for more teeth to it, but we were glad that he took a stand and is making an effort with a gridlocked Congress that won’t address the issue. So, the research shows that yes, it does spike gun sales, but that spike usually drifts off in 3-4 months, so my guess is, about now, the gun sales will start to level out. Again, we don’t have a problem with gun ownership for law-abiding citizens. We just feel that people need to be screened and we need to keep guns out of the wrong hands, and that’s exactly what President Obama was trying to do.

SS: In most states there’s no minimum age for owning a gun - in Texas or Kentucky you can buy your kid a gun as a present, there are even guns manufactured especially for kids. Is this acceptable under American tradition - that kids should learn to hunt and shoot guns from an early age?

AB: It is acceptable. Certainly, in rural areas, when kids grow up hunting. That is a culture and a way of life in rural areas, it’s something that I understand. Those people that make their children very aware of the safety that needs to be kept in mind around guns, and also keeps their guns locked and unloaded with the ammunition separately in safe storage manner - I appreciate and respect. Yeah, marketing to young folks, though, in general - certainly, most of our population is in the city in the U.S., so I don’t think we need to market to children. If a parent chooses to allow their child to use a firearm for sport or hunting - that is their choice. But yeah, I think, when a person turns 18, or 21 for the Conceal License, they can make that choice....

SS: But how can you stop that?

AB: We can’t stop it. There’s nothing to stop it, right now. This is just my opinion. There aren’t any guidelines to my knowledge on advertising to children, for guns. So, it happens, in magazines, on websites and the U.S. leaders in the Capitol are not willing to take this on.

SS: Don’t target guns, target mental illness - that’s another line heard from gun advocates, you’ve mentioned that yourself - isn’t that a valid argument considering how mass shooters mostly fall into this so-called category?

AB: It’s true to an extent. But, in 1 in 5 people in the U.S. has some type of mental illness, whether it’s depression, bipolar disorder - there’s a lot of mental illnesses in this country, and you will never eradicate mental illness. I wholeheartedly believe in treating mental illness and giving adequate resources to mental illnesses, but most people that are mentally ill are not violent people, so, that premise is a difficult one to go down in sort of victim villainizing…

SS: So how do make a difference and where do you draw a line? For instance, if someone is taking Prozac, should he be on that list of someone who can’t buy a gun?

AB: No, absolutely not, and that is a dilemma. One of the categories for the FBI to prohibit you from gun ownership is if you have been adjudicated as mentally ill by the court or you have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. States can pass their own laws to make sure that sales aren’t done to dangerously mentally ill people. But without, once again, universal background checks, and up to 40% of gun sales are to people without the background check, we are absolutely selling to those dangerously mentally ill people that are on the prohibited list. So, we don’t need to keep guns out of hands of all people with mental illness. Most people with mental illness are not dangerous, but we do need to keep them out of hands of the people that Federal Government has already said are dangerous and are prohibited. It doesn’t make any sense for us to allow sales to people on the prohibited list, including those that are dangerously mentally ill. So that is how we tackle the problem, it’s just enforcing the law that’s currently in place. It sounds simple, but only 18 states have universal background checks. So, getting this passed in all 50 states would really be a big step forward. Another thing that we’re trying to do is have a Gun Violence Protective Order for family members that have someone who’s mentally ill. That will put a temporary prohibition on people for purchasing and owning guns until they have an evaluation, when they get over a crisis there and counter it. So there are other things the states can do.

SS: Here’s another thing: the families of the children who were killed in the Sandy Hook massacre are suing the distributor and seller of the military-style assault rifle that was used in the shooting. Should gun manufacturers and those who sell them be held responsible for the way their weapons are used? Even if they’re sold legally?

AB: I think it depends, I think they should have their day in court, I think that there are some gun owners that are good actors and they follow the law and they try to avoid straw purchases, they alert the FBI or law enforcement when they see something fishy or see a large amount of guns or ammunition being sold and they stop that. We have someone in Austin, Texas - someone came in and looked visibly mentally ill and he said “I’m not going to sell you a gun”. That’s what we need more of, it’s things like that,  it’s people stepping up to say ‘no’ to gun sales when the time calls for it.

SS: Who needs high-capacity, military-grade assault weapons at home anyway? I mean, what for? And if it’s hunting, then hunting what?

AB: I absolutely agree with you. I think that the government should have more oversight over this types of weapons. But there just hasn’t been a will in Congress to ban these types of weapons or increase the regulation over them.

SS: You can own any gun you’d like, and more than that, you can get, for instance, a flamethrower, a perfectly legal weapon - and the manufacturer says that they’re mostly used for “entertainment”, like entertaining a group of friends at a barbecue. Is that really necessary, is it too much to appeal to the Constitutional right all the time for the sake of having entertainment?

AB: If some people feel that having a gun is entertaining… again, we have that right in this country and so we absolutely believe there needs to be more conversation about common sense regulations, but the conversation is driven by rights and a 2nd Amendment and some people interpret that as so strict that it should not… you know, some people believe there should be absolutely no regulations, no background checks, no permit required, no training - and that’s extremely dangerous. Some of the states in our country are trying to stop proposals like that right now. So, we’re trying to move forward with positive laws, but a lot of what we need to do is do offense on the bad bills that are put forward in the states across the country and takes a lot of work, too. You know, guns everywhere, no training, lowering the age to 14, like we’ve seen recently, campus carry bills - so there’s a lot of… While some states have passed some good regulations, there’s a lot of bad proposals out there too.

SS: But, Gun Control bills rarely make it to Congress and virtually never pass if they do - thanks to the NRA. Why are politicians so reluctant to cross this powerful lobby?

AB: No matter where you are in the U.S., there’s gun owners in your district, and they tend to be very vocal and very outspoken - so people don’t want to… The NRA rates the legislators, they rate Congressmen and Senators and nobody wants to get an F  rating from the NRA. So, they’re powerful, and those folks want to get re-elected. Now, no, nothing positive has happened on a Federal level except for Obama’s executive orders, but there happened some positive things on a state levels. Since Sandy Hook, 99 state laws have been passed in 37 states to help strengthen gun laws in the U.S., so I certainly don’t want to paint a picture that nothing positive has happened, even though some negative things have happened too, we’ve also moved forward in some way. And going back to your gun dealer question, if you don’t mind, I just want to say, that is a grey area and I want to say that I think that if that gun manufacturer - or gun dealer - has been shown to be a bad apple dealer, as they say, or someone who knowingly sells to people that they shouldn’t - then yes, I think that they should be prosecuted for that. But if you don’t have evidence to show otherwise, then I understand that it’s difficult for a dealer to know who is going to… you know, if they pass the background checks, they’re doing their job. It’s a difficult issue.

SS: Thank you so much Andrea, for this interview. We’ve been talking to Andrea Brauer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, an organisation working to reduce gun violence and promoting tighter gun laws in the U.S., discussing America’s obsession with guns and it’s consequences. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.