Are Guns The New Tobacco?

October 9, 2017
In The News

Nationally, we’ve pretty much got used to the routine of reaction to mass shootings. Once the shock wears off, we’re grappling with a mix of heartbreak and outrage. Soon after, we’ve launched into a full blown debate over America’s obsession with guns and, naturally, reflexed into a conversation about gun control.  

One side of the debate points to massacres like Las Vegas as one reason to have gun control as a prevention tool; the other side pushes back and claims it’s never appropriate or “the right time” to have a politically charged conversation like that so soon after so many deaths. Gun regulation advocates retort, “So, when is a good time?”

That game goes on and on with no laws being passed.

That will, undoubtedly, happen in the wake of Las Vegas’s 59 murdered and more than 500 injured. We shouldn’t anticipate any sort of comprehensive gun control push because we’ve been in this same spot before and the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, won’t let it happen.

In 2013, right after Sandy Hook, Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-VA), thought they could easily pass the Manchin-Toomey Amendment or the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013 expanding background checks on gun sales. At the time, it was widely viewed as rather groundbreaking, even if it didn’t outright ban the sale of military-grade weapons no one, including firearm enthusiasts themselves, need.

Most thought there was no way this didn’t pass, at least, the Senate: 26 people, including 20 innocent kids, in a school were murdered in a horrific instant by a fully-armed psychopath. Something had to give. The bipartisan dynamics of the bill, red state Democrat collaborating with swing state Republican (who enjoys a voting base of proud gun-carrying Pennsylvanians), offered some hope.   

It didn’t turn out that way. The rude awakening of the NRA’s influence kicked in as a grim reality check in the Senate as the bill was unable to reach a needed 60 vote threshold. That didn’t happen just once: They tried it again in 2015 right after the San Bernardino shootings that killed 14 people and injured another 14. That didn’t work either. 

If the killing of nearly two dozen children in a school can’t do it, what can? It gets deeper: Even after months of mulling his rigid Second Amendment stance and the impact on his life after nearly losing it to a mass shooter’s rifle on a baseball practice field, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) didn’t even bat an eye during a Fox News interview this week asking him if he changed his view on gun rights. “I think it’s fortified it,” said Scalise.    

So, what’s an anxious public to do?

The first thing that we should change is the traditional contours of the national gun conversation —by simply being realistic about it. Advocates for stricter gun control are under the false assumption that most Americans think the same way they do in the wake of bloody massacres like Las Vegas. Yet, only a slim majority—51 percent—support gun control, according to Pew Research Center.

And even while an overwhelming majority of Americans support background checks—81 percent overall—only 57 percent of Republican voters support that Manchin-Toomey bill; many Republicans thinks it goes too far in curbing Second Amendment rights. Responding to their base, GOP Senators get some political cover. Republican voters, who make up the core of the gun rights group membership, control any emerging gun control policy push since they currently control all levers of power in Washington.  

In essence, it’s hard to hold your breath on gun control when the gun lobby has that much influence … and spreads that much cash around. As the Center for Responsive Politics shows, gun rights groups “… have given about $41.9 million to candidates, parties and outside spending groups since 1989, with 89 percent of the funds contributed to candidates and parties going to Republicans. And in the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, they let loose another $48 million (at least) in outside spending.”  early $23 million of that came from the NRA alone.

Compare that to just a little over $4 million from gun control groups in that same period and you understand what’s going on.

Even PA’s own Pat Toomey ranks 6th among the Top 20 recipients of gun rights money, snagging nearly $170,000 directly from gun rights groups since his election and nearly $1 million from outside groups supporting gun rights. Almost $30,000 in NRA contributions landed in the pockets of Republican members of the Pennsylvania delegation to the U.S. House.   

With little hope for gun control on the federal level, Philly-area Congressman Dwight Evans is looking to shake that up with a focus on what could be done on the state level. It’s fairly peculiar for a federal lawmaker to outright concede that he can’t get things done where he works. But Evans, who spent more than two decades in Harrisburg as a state legislator, believes the push for gun control will have to happen through a long game state-by-state push. He started that this week by reaching out to PA state Attorney General Josh Shapiro urging him to explore what exactly is in the AG’s legal tool shed to impose stricter gun regulations in open-carry Pennsylvania.

That’s obviously not as easy as it might sound, especially in a state like the Keystone State with its countless gun shops dotting the landscape. Guns are ingrained in the culture. So much so that Pennsylvania legislators passed what’s called the Uniform Firearms Act, part of which prevents any local municipality from passing gun laws that are more restrictive than preexisting state law. This is what has prevented City Council from imposing its own ban on assault rifles in Philadelphia.

But Evans told Reality Check on WURD that there should be a way for the AG to circumvent the state legislature on this issue the same way the state Supreme Court has slapped back legislative pushes in the past.  “We need to use the independent judiciary as a tool.”

On WURD, Evans explained that Shapiro and AGs in other states could start treating the gun control fight the same way 46 state AGs treated the tobacco settlement fight back in the 1990s.  That ended up with states reaping a nearly $300 billion pay day out of the Big Tobacco companies to recoup lost healthcare costs from tobacco-related illnesses, especially lost Medicaid costs. Some of that money is still sitting in state coffers today.

“Unfortunately, in my 25-year political career, the gun issue has gotten worse. Not to be an alarmist, but it’s become very unsafe,” said Evans.  He’s hoping to move the needle on that with a gradual state by state approach.

It’s creative, but it’s a tough sell. First: such an effort will need data to determine the cost of gun violence in each state. Like the tobacco settlement, policymakers and AGs will need to ask: Is the state losing more money than it’s making with guns? That’s hard to tell when the federal government’s ability to research the effects of gun violence is completely defunded. That’s been the case for more than two decades—another legacy of NRA influence.

Second: guns aren’t like tobacco. They’re much more dangerous. And some experts believe that a state by state approach could create a dangerous “patchwork” of differing laws whereby it’s hard to tell where, for example, open-carry is legal or not when traveling through states.

“It’s the state by state approach that put us in this situation,” says former Colorado State Senate President Peter Groff in a conversation with Reality Check. Groff dealt heavily with the gun issue as a black Denver Democrat in a state with massive rural clout and a built-in fetish for their farms and firearms. “Some states have open carry while others require multiple safety measures. That’s why the federal government must step in and create some uniformity.”

On the other hand, even Groff concedes, that’s not happening anytime soon.