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Silent on Assault Weapons Ban Defeat and NRA-Backed Dems, Has Obama Collapsed on Gun Control?

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At his most recent public event campaigning for gun control, President Obama chastised those he called “powerful voices on the other side interested in running out the clock … to prevent any of these reforms from happening at all.” But one of the leading journalists covering the weapons industry in the United States, Paul Barrett, says Obama in fact has backed down on gun control by refusing to take on members of his own party who also stand in its way. Barrett, the assistant managing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek and author of “Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun,” contrasts the inaction at the federal level with the landmark new measure in Connecticut that marks the strictest gun-control package in the country. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama is heading to Colorado today and Connecticut next week as part of his latest push to urge Congress to pass new gun-control measures following the mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and Aurora, Colorado. Obama is expected to step up his call for universal background checks for gun buyers and urge Congress to at least vote an assault weapons ban and limits on large-capacity ammunition magazines. Obama spoke at the White House last week while surrounded by mothers of shooting victims.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t get this done. But the reason we’re talking about it here today is because it’s not done until it’s done, and there are some powerful voices on the other side that are interested in running out the clock or changing the subject or drowning out the majority of the American people to prevent any of these reforms from happening at all. They’re doing everything they can to make all our progress collapse under the weight of fear and frustration, or their assumption is, is that people will just forget about it.

AMY GOODMAN: While Congress has failed to enact any new gun-control measures since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut lawmakers are voting today on what’s being touted as the strictest gun-control package in the country. The bill includes a ban on sales of high-capacity ammunition magazines, background checks for private gun sales and a registry for existing magazines that carry 10 or more bullets.

For more on the latest gun news, we’re joined by Paul Barrett, assistant managing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek and author of the book Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun.

Paul Barrett, welcome back to Democracy Now!

PAUL BARRETT: Morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: You don’t think President Obama is serious about gun control.

PAUL BARRETT: No, I think he sent a pretty clear, if coded, signal in his State of the Union address when his emotional refrain was the proponents of gun control deserve a vote. He kept saying that over and over again. He didn’t really demand that members of his own party in the Senate, which his party controls, pass the legislation in question.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s actually go to Obama at that State of the Union address. It was—he repeatedly called on Congress to vote on new gun-control measures.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence, they deserve a simple vote.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama’s State of the Union address.

PAUL BARRETT: Yeah, and I think members of his party, Democrats from red states, chief among them Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada, could interpret that exhortation to mean: “We’re going to go through the motions, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll have a vote, and then we’ll move on to more important issues.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, saying they deserve a vote is, you think, a code of President Obama to say, “You don’t have to pass it.”

PAUL BARRETT: That’s right. It’s almost an acknowledgment that nothing serious is going to get enacted. It’s a debate about whether there should be a filibuster or there shouldn’t be a filibuster. And all of this is taking place in the context of legislation proposed in the Senate, where they’re having trouble getting bills to the floor. They were supposed to debate them this week; it’s now been postponed yet again until next week. And the Senate is controlled by the Democrats. They have the majority in that house. When all of this moves over to the Republican-controlled and tea party-influenced House of Representatives, the whole process is going to come to a screeching halt.

AMY GOODMAN: In the issue of the Senate, wasn’t the first sign when President Obama selected Vice President Biden to head a committee? Once you start a committee after the horrific shooting, it’s—that’s what is the greatest ally of the NRA: time.

PAUL BARRETT: Well, I think there’s a lot to what you’re saying. I think the establishment of the committee; I think statements made repeatedly by his chief spokesman, Jay Carney, from the White House, where they kept emphasizing this is going to be very difficult, this is going to be very hard to do, they were lowering expectations—again, sending signals, I think, to moderate Democrats from red states that we—

AMY GOODMAN: Like who?

PAUL BARRETT: Well, I mean, Harry Reid is chief among them, but also you’re talking about Begich from Alaska and senators from the Dakotas, the senator from Montana, senator from West Virginia. I mean, without their votes, nothing is going to pass the Senate that’s significant.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about some of the legislation. Let’s talk about the assault weapons ban and also what background checks—90 percent of Americans are for background checks. They’re even fighting over that.

PAUL BARRETT: That’s right. Right now, the only serious debate is over the background check bill. The assault weapons ban, Majority Leader Reid has already said that’s not really going to be anything we’re going to take terribly seriously. Magazine capacity ban, similar. They’re debating the background check bill. The key figure in the Senate is Coburn from Oklahoma, who is the Republican who’s basically been designated to either give his blessing to a compromise or not. He’s been negotiating with Senator Schumer from New York. And so far they are—they’re basically saying, “We can’t get the details worked out.” And as you pointed out at the top, that’s basically a victory for the NRA, because that’s a signal to other moderate Democrats that they can not vote for.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a comment of the former Republican Congressmember Asa Hutchinson from Arkansas, who served as director of the National Rifle Association-funded National School Shield Task Force. During an interview on CNN’s The Situation Room, Hutchinson said he’s personally open to expanding background checks to more gun purchases. He was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer.

WOLF BLITZER: I’ll put one poll up on the screen, a CBS poll: Federal law requiring background checks on all potential gun buyers—90 percent of the American public favor that; only 8 percent oppose that. What say you?

ASA HUTCHINSON: If Congress decides that we ought to expand background checks, that is a decision that they will make. On my task force—

WOLF BLITZER: So would that be good idea, you think?

ASA HUTCHINSON: On my task force—on my task force, we had varied opinions on that issue, but it was not the focus of our task force. And so, it’s—it’s—if you’re looking at my personal opinion on background checks, I hope Congress can look at a way to do better in having good records in the NICS system, or the system that does the background checks, so that we actually have information as to who’s been adjudicated mentally ill, that we can have information, better information, on convicted felons, and that we make sure that when someone purchases a firearm, that it’s going to someone that’s qualified to own it. We’re all for that. As to how they work out—

WOLF BLITZER: So, what I hear you saying is that you’re open to expanding background checks, personally.

ASA HUTCHINSON: Yes, absolutely. I’m open to expanding background checks, if you can do it within a way that does not infringe upon an individual and make it hard for an individual to transfer to a friend or a neighbor, somebody—that if you’re in Montana and have a casual sale, we don’t want to infringe upon those rights, either.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Republican Congressmember Asa Hutchinson, now an NRA consultant. Paul Barrett, even those comments, the NRA said he wasn’t speaking for them.

PAUL BARRETT: Well, right. I think the really crucial thing to emphasize here is that as recently as 1999, the NRA itself, in the person of Wayne LaPierre, said to Congress, “We endorse universal background checks.” This entire debate has moved really dramatically in the libertarian, anti-regulatory direction over the last dozen years, so that it is now vertoben within gun rights circles to even strongly endorse background checks, something that as recently as the late 1990s was not particularly controversial.

AMY GOODMAN: The Hill, Paul, is reporting today that the “central part of the Senate’s gun control package is in danger of being gutted as the [NRA] voices opposition. … Increased penalties on straw purchases of guns sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee [and] looked like a safe bet to win Senate approval … Now the straw-purchasing bill could be in danger because of NRA demands to change the language so law enforcement officials would have to prove [that] a straw purchaser intended to commit a crime or further the commission of a crime by buying a gun for someone else.” Explain what this straw purchase is all about.

PAUL BARRETT: Right. A straw purchase is where you have two people come into a gun store; one person is not allowed to buy the gun because they’re, say, a convicted felon or they have a protective order out against them because they’ve beaten their wife or something like that; they bring in a person whose record is clean; the person whose record is clean nominally buys the gun but is really buying it for the person who is prohibited from buying the gun—or, as happens on some occasions, they’re buying multiple guns that way, and they’re going to traffic those guns to criminals, often in another city. So this law would make a federal crime out of that action. Strange as it may seem, right now that particular transaction is not explicitly illegal. When federal agents prosecute such crimes, they use false statement laws and basically try to prosecute people for lying when they’re filling out the forms, as opposed to the whole transaction being prohibited.

What you’re seeing from the NRA now is truly extraordinary, because the idea that it should be illegal to engage in straw purchasing, which is a central source of guns for illegal interstate gun trafficking, really was seen, as recently as a couple months ago, as being completely noncontroversial. I mean, you had, you know, Republicans supporting it. And now, as you said, this is a very typical NRA tactic of wait a couple months and then start to fiddle with the fine print, and before you know it, the whole debate has focused on something we thought we had settled, and the idea of comprehensive background checks is completely off the table. So this is an extraordinary demonstration of the NRA’s dexterity and the influence that the NRA has within the Republican Party.

AMY GOODMAN: At what point will the family of victims of mass shootings become a powerful lobby, or at least a challenge to the NRA?

PAUL BARRETT: I don’t think any time in our lifetime.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama’s comments when the Feinstein assault weapons ban went down?

PAUL BARRETT: Silence, so far as I know.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we wrap this segment—then we’re going to be talking about the NRA study that came out—you have written a piece about the gun manufacturers, gun manufacturers fearing the NRA.

PAUL BARRETT: That’s right. Many people misunderstand the relationship, and it’s understand—the misunderstanding is completely understandable. In most situations, the industry behind the lobby group tells that lobby group what to do, the industry that provides the money and the ground-level backing. When it comes to the gun industry, the—like everything else having to do with guns in this country, you can make no assumptions. Everything is strange when it comes to firearms. And that goes for politics, too. And in the politics of firearms, it is the lobbying organization in Washington that calls the shots.

And this is for a couple of reasons. One, gun buyers are so prone to organized activity that if a gun company crosses the NRA, the NRA and its local affiliates can organize a boycott of a particular company that can potentially destroy the company. And the companies know that. And this has happened in the past; this is not a hypothetical issue. Back in 2000, when Smith & Wesson agreed to various regulatory compromises with the Clinton administration, in what would have been a historic compromise between the gun industry and the federal government, gun rights groups, gun owners groups organized a boycott of Smith & Wesson, one of the most storied names in the gun industry, that almost ruined the company. The company changed ownership. They had to shut down their factory. People were returning Smith & Wesson firearms. And this was a signal of what the gun rights lobby can do if it decides that a particular gun company is out of line. Smith & Wesson, by the way, immediately reneged on this compromise, fell back into line and got the blessing of the NRA and went forward.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of the Connecticut legislation?

PAUL BARRETT: The significance of the Connecticut legislation is twofold. One, I think we’re going to see the most serious activity on gun control at the state levels—we’ve seen in Connecticut, New York, Colorado, Maryland and a few other states. So we’re going to have a federal situation. We’re not going to see progress at the federal level. We will see it in certain blue states.

Connecticut is particularly interesting because, for historical reasons, it is one of the headquarters of the gun industry. There are very important, historic gun companies in Connecticut. In West Hartford, you’ve got Colt. In North Haven, you’ve got Mossberg. You’ve got Stag Arms and several other very well-known gun companies. Those gun companies have said, “We’re going to pull out of the state. We’re going to move. We’re going to take our jobs and go to Texas or go to North Dakota, where they like us.” So this is going to be a very interesting political situation. Connecticut is—has a tough unemployment situation. They can’t afford to lose the several thousand jobs that might disappear. So Connecticut is going to continue to be a focal point.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, on Joe Biden, who could run for president and who’s in charge of the gun control committee, his own comments about what he and his wife would do in their property?

PAUL BARRETT: I think Joe Biden, sad to say, really discredited himself in the midst of this debate. In an interview that’s gotten very wide circulation on the Internet, he said, “You don’t need so-called assault weapons, military-style semi-automatic rifles. All you need is a shotgun, like the couple of shotguns I have at home.” And he told—said, “I’ve told my wife, if there’s trouble out in front of the house or you feel threatened, you just take one of those shotguns, go out on the balcony and fire off a couple of rounds,” which actually in most states—I believe in Delaware, too—would be quite illegal to do. You can’t just go out in front of your house and start shooting at shadows. You might kill somebody or kill a neighbor. And I think by making comments like that, Joe Biden raises very serious questions about his seriousness as a public figure on gun control.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul, I want you to stay with us. Paul Barrett, assistant managing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek. His book, Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun. We’re going to talk about the NRA’s latest study in a minute.

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