For decades now, the gun lobby has trotted out the same tired canard when Americans have called for gun reform in the wake of a mass shooting. “Enforce the laws on the books,” they tell us, as if there is an ample supply of American gun laws with actual teeth to be enforced.
Their response was no different after the horrific massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “You can’t legislate morality,” National Rifle Association (NRA) CEO Wayne LaPierre declared on “Meet The Press.” “We don’t prosecute anybody under federal gun laws right now. If you want to control violent criminals, take them off the streets.”
LaPierre’s claim is largely bogus. According to a 2013 report, there were 7,520 federal weapons prosecutions in 2012, and that figure does not include state and local prosecutions. Second, we incarcerate more of our citizens than any nation on earth. Finally, no one—and we mean no one—has done more to hamper the enforcement of federal gun laws than the National Rifle Association itself.
Nonetheless, Republican lawmakers employed the NRA’s mantra to reject any and all calls for reform of our gun laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. In a February 2013 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina brushed aside reform proposals and stated, “I think we should take our current law and enforce it.” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas concurred, declaring, “The focus of law enforcement should be on criminals … Many of the communities that each of you has suffered losses in are communities that, sadly, law enforcement has been failing.”
The Senators’ most specific grievance concerned prosecutions under a federal law that makes it a felony offense to lie on ATF Form 4473 when undergoing a background check to purchase a firearm. To be fair, there is certainly significant room for improvement in that area. That said, Republican lawmakers have been curiously silent about the issue of gun law enforcement since they used this excuse to help kill off reforms embraced by the Sandy Hook families in April of 2013.
Sometimes, however, it’s important to be careful what you wish for…
In May 2014, Republican state Senator Ted Ferrioli of Oregon asked Governor John Kitzhaber to do what the NRA and other gun lobbyists have been advocating for years. A month later, Oregon State Police sent a letter to gun dealers informing them that they would be engaging in “enforcement action involving persons attempting an unlawful firearms transfer through a licensed firearm dealer, during a voluntary private party check or a background check at a gun show.” “This process will allow OCP and other law enforcement agencies to investigate potential violations of law…and ultimately make Oregon a safer place,” the letter concluded. A State Police training bulletin made it clear that officers would be dispatched to a gun dealer’s location to investigate (and potentially make an arrest) whenever an individual failed a background check.
It didn’t take long for the gun lobby to react negatively to the new policy. The director of the Oregon Firearms Federation, Kevin Starrett, called it “John Kitzhaber’s Jihad” and a “politically motivated attack on gun owners.” To back up the latter claim, Starrett cited two cases where individuals who failed a background check were visited by a state trooper. The nature of the denials was unclear, but neither investigation led to an arrest (despite one of the would-be buyers being on a federal hold for mental health issues). To Starrett, however, this still represented heavy-handed law enforcement and “an outrageous misuse of scarce police resources.”
So much for “enforcing the laws on the books.”
Starrett’s quick denouncement of the policy suggests that he would rather arm everyone—no matter what the consequences to public safety—then get tough on dangerous individuals who lie when they attempt to buy guns.
Ranting about the failures of law enforcement is a good theater for the gun lobby. It undermines confidence in government, thereby making new laws harder to enact; enhances fear and paranoia among their base, thereby driving up gun sales; and distracts people from the fact that America has the weakest gun laws of any developed country in the world. But their argument is neither sincere nor well-intentioned. Its sole purpose is to delay reform so the gun industry can continue to operate in a laissez faire manner and drive profits.
So good on Oregon for finally calling the gun lobby’s bluff. Not only is the state now better able to interdict dangerous individuals attempting to arm up, they’ve also put the kibosh on pro-gunners’ most disingenuous sound byte.