NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Much of the outrage that followed the death of Trayvon Martin is now on hold pending the trial of George Zimmerman, who was eventually arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Zimmerman admits that he shot and killed the unarmed 17-year-old but claims he fired in self-defense. Martin's parents believe their son was stalked and killed because he was black. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, columnist E.J. Dionne argued that this incident and others point to the urgency of repealing Stand Your Ground laws that are on the books in Florida and two dozen other states.
But he goes on to conclude that moderates, liberals and many conservatives who ought to know better are too petrified by the gun lobby to confront it. How does a politician's stance on gun laws affect your vote? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne is also a regular contributor to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He joins us today from a studio there. E.J., nice to have you back on the program.
E.J. DIONNE: Great to be with you always.
CONAN: And you cite...
DIONNE: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: You're welcome. And you cite New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who said that leaders of the National Rifle Association were not interested in public safety when they advocated Stand Your Ground legislation, but, quote, "they were interested in promoting a culture where people take the law into their own hands and face no consequences for it." Let's call that by its real name, Bloomberg continued, vigilantism.
DIONNE: Indeed. I think what's insidious about Stand Your Ground laws is that in every jurisdiction that has them, they tilt the balance of power in any street encounter in favor of the person who has a gun. And that's what happened in the Martin case. Wherever you stand on what actually happened there, it was clear that Mr. Martin was at a disadvantage because he wasn't armed. And I think what this law does is it provides a perverse incentive for everyone to be armed.
And I think what we need is perhaps a lobby for the unarmed majority in the country. I think that when you look at what the NRA and other parts of the gun lobby are doing, they're trying to insinuate guns all over the place. There are laws floating around to allow guns in national parks, college campuses, even in churches. And I think that, you know, the pro-gun people say, a lot, that those of us who favor regulating guns - by the way, no more of them we want to regulate the use of cars or motorcycles or other products - but we do think guns should be subject to regulation that we are trying to attack the cultureal rural areas or attack people for whom guns are important.
We accept those of us who favor more gun control, that lots of honest law-abiding Americans own guns and use them responsibly. But we just don't want to be told that the laws are going to tilt so heavily in favor of people who have guns that we're going to have to carry them too, whether we want to or not.
CONAN: Well, you're talking about the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association. The NRA is the largest part of that. But how do these laws get approved if it's so self-evident that they're counterproductive?
DIONNE: Well, I think that what's happened is that the opposition to the gun lobby has gotten weaker and weaker. I think what you saw in the Democratic Party, both after the 1994 midterm elections and Al Gore's - whether you want to call it defeat or his defeat at the Supreme Court in 2000 - is Democrats concluded that, well, they've lost a lot of rural votes because they were in favor of gun control. The last president to push hard for some gun control measures, like the assault ban, was Bill Clinton.
Now, I think that misreads the election returns. I think there were other reasons why the Democrats lost in '94 and this 2000 election was so close. But this has created a kind of just a deep fear among Democrats. And President Obama has obviously not been at all aggressive in pushing any sorts of new gun restrictions. And I think there's an irony there, that perhaps people who in their heart of hearts, actually do support gun regulation, ought to bear in mind; which is the NRA is saying that Obama's anti-gun anyway. They're going to attack people who are on the moderate or progressive side, anyway. So why not try to start making an argument again over why we should have universal background checks, for example?
I mean, we ought to be able to agree that people who are mentally disturbed or people who, for example, have been identified as terrorists, well, we want to keep guns out of their hands. There's nothing wrong with that, and it's fully constitutional, even under the Supreme Court's new and more permissive view of the law on this.
CONAN: You describe such politicians - and I'm not sure you quite include President Obama in this group - as feckless, meaning - you provide us a definition of the term - meaning, ineffective and weak. But in the meantime, there are those who say the lesson of elections is that those who care about gun rights care about it passionately. They will vote on that issue alone. They will be single-issue voters, whereas those who support the kind of controls that you're talking about, well, they care about a lot of things. They're not going to make their votes strictly on that one issue.
DIONNE: No. I think that's true. I apologize in the column a bit, by the way, that feckless is a columnist's favorite word, that's why I felt obligated to give the definition there. But I do think you need - what you need really are a couple of campaigns where a politician loses an election because he or she opposes reasonable gun measures. So you had a little bit of an example in a campaign involving Gerry Connolly, the congressman from out in suburban Virginia here, where his opponent made some comments about the Virginia Tech shooting that were actually used against this sort of pro-gun opponent, and there's some evidence that that actually hurt him.
But I think you need some examples where you can show that there are some people out there who vote on the gun issue, but you're absolutely right. I would like more people who actually want rational gun restrictions to give evidence that, yes, they're willing to cast a ballot on the basis of that issue. Up to now, the other side has had that although, again, I think a lot of the voters who support NRA candidates are probably fairly conservative and would vote for conservative candidates anyway. I think we have to look a lot more carefully at the numbers before we conclude that there are advantages that overwhelming. But I think what you said is true and even more importantly it's what people think is true.
CONAN: So are you advocating that some candidates, gun-control advocates - switching metaphors now - fall on their swords?
DIONNE: Well, I think that advocates of gun control running in the areas where, clearly, people favor rational - as I would see it - rational regulations on guns in suburban and big city areas, I think that's winnable. I'd also love to see, and I would invite a whole group of people who own guns, who use guns responsibly and just don't buy this idea that every single, new law on guns is a step down some slippery slope toward confiscation. We are not going to confiscate everybody's weapons in the United States, but we should keep guns out of the wrong hands. We should make it harder for people who intend to use them for criminal acts to get them. There's - and I think there ought to be a national consensus on that.
CONAN: Well, as you know, the gun lobby will insist that any politician who opposes the Stand Your Ground laws is thereby an enemy.
DIONNE: Right. And I can tell you that anybody who writes columns on this issue from my point of view hears a lot from people who have that view, and I'm happy they write me. I, actually, once wrote a column replying to my mail from folks like that, arguing among other things that, no, I actually do respect your culture, and I don't think that it is the ability to be armed that protects democracy in the United States.
But I also think that you are seeing some new political activity that Mayor Bloomberg of New York, Mayor Tom Menino of Boston and other mayors organizing this group of mayors against the illegal guns. I think you're starting to see police chiefs around the country start speaking out, and I think that's the level where it's going to have to happen. I mean, mayors are the people who have to visit the families of those who are killed on their streets. They see the carnage every day, and so I think they're probably - starting this from the bottom, up, at the local level, is probably the way to rebuild support, political support for rational restrictions on guns.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. How much does the gun issue affect your vote? 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Brent's(ph) on the line from Kansas City.
BRENT: Yes. As far as their stance on gun control, I really don't think that there's a lot of people that has - have a lot to do with how they vote, unless a politician made that a major part of their campaign, kind of like abortion. You know, abortion - the political party's say whatever they're supposed to, but unless that is a major part of their platform, I don't think most people - with the exception of the fringes on the left and the right, I don't think that it really affects how they vote on that.
CONAN: Well, you could certainly have your opponents, even if it's not a major part of your platform, make it one through political advertising.
BRENT: Yeah. I mean, they could do that, but then, again, I think most intelligent voters don't let that sway their vote, unless the other politician who has the ads being run against them allow it to become that, and then it becomes a major part of their platform. And then at that point it affects (unintelligible).
CONAN: Interesting observation. Would - but getting back to the question, would you - how does the position - a politician's stance on gun control affect your vote?
BRENT: Well, I don't like Republicans, but if it comes down to local issues as far as voting on gun control, I'm really against gun control because criminals could care less what the laws are. Most people that I know that have concealed-carry permits don't even carry their firearms, but the ones that do have never pulled them. They don't - it makes them actually, probably, less confrontational because they know they do have a powerful tool. That if they let their emotions get control, you know, could cause a serious problem. Now, you know, I occasionally carry a firearm, and I know that my road rage is far less when I have one in the car because I know that it could lead to a serious problem. But in the car, if I don't have one, then, you know, I have a 3,000-, 4,000-pound weapon at my disposal that makes me more aggressive.
CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for the call, Brad(ph). Appreciate it.
BRENT: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post about gun control and the gun lobby. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, E.J., that caller sounds like your worst nightmare.
DIONNE: Oh, no. He's not my worst nightmare, but I do think there are two problems with that. You know, one is, well, you can say that criminals break the laws on anything. I mean, you can use that argument to say we shouldn't have laws outlawing any sort of behavior that we think is wrong. But the second thing is that what permissive gun laws do where, for example, it becomes impossible to - for police to check where a gun came from. We need some laws to make it easier when a gun is used in a crime that we can know where it came from, how was it obtained, and who is selling guns not to the law-abiding citizen like that caller, but who is using states where laws are much more permissive to funnel guns into other states, which may have more restrictive laws, where those laws are used in crime.
Again, we're not talking about taking that gentleman's gun away. What we are talking about is having laws that make it easier to trace crime and to figure out where the guns come from used in crime and to prevent crime.
CONAN: Let's get Paul on the line. Paul with us from Panama City.
PAUL: Hey, Mr. Conan. Good to speak to you again.
CONAN: Nice for you to call.
PAUL: I am a member of the NRA, and I do support Stand Your Ground laws because we have to realize that every one of these laws point out you can only use reasonable force. If someone insults me, I'm not allowed to whip out a .45 and start shooting. I'm not covered under the law in that case. However, I do support common sense legislation, like registration, like making private sales - like restricting private sales to the same standards as a gun dealer, you know...
CONAN: Background checks, yeah.
PAUL: Something like that.
PAUL: But I will - being in Northwest Florida in the Deep South, gun control isn't really a very big issue in the urban areas, and it's probably my second most important issue. But as long as a politician has a reasonable policy about guns and gun ownership, I'll vote for him.
DIONNE: You know, I'd love to invite that gentleman - I appreciate the call very much. I'd love him to invite the NRA to support his positions which, for example, the notion that private sales should be subjected to the same restrictions as licensed gun dealers. What is wrong with that? And yet, the NRA has been fighting those laws. So why doesn't - I would love this gentleman to change the NRA's views on this, and maybe we could change the direction of the law that way.
In terms of the Stand Your Ground laws, we simply, I guess, disagree on that because I think the problem is reasonable is one of those words that can become very, very subjective. I think in the - whatever else one thinks about the Trayvon Martin case, it became, I think, confusing for law enforcement officials to figure out was or was not Mr. Zimmerman covered by the Stand Your Ground laws. But you know what? I'll be happy to have this disagreement with the gentleman. I just want him to change the NRA's views on some of these other issues. I think he could perform a public service.
PAUL: Well, that's another thing that I wanted to point out. Are you still there?
CONAN: Yeah, we're still here.
DIONNE: I am, sir.
PAUL: Oh, I'm sorry. That's another thing I wanted to speak about. A lot of people talk about the, quote, unquote, "gun lobby," and they make a mistake of correlating us with like big tobacco or big oil or big ag, and we're not asking that the government mandate everybody to carry a gun like big oil was asking the government to mandate that there are no alternative energy sources, and the big tobacco was wanting, you know, no restrictions at all. We're just asking for the right to carry guns in a responsible manner, and to own them and to use them, though most of us do support - well, most people are a little more conservative than me, I should say. But when people speak about the gun lobby, I want them to realize that gun lobby is me. It's millions of people like me. That's all I had to say. Thank you.
CONAN: All right, Paul. Thanks. I just wanted to get this email in from Tim: Second Amendment advocates are not single-issue voters. Politicians' position on the Second Amendment rights of Americans has an effect on my vote. Americans should understand how their state and federal representatives in government uphold and protect their constitutional right to keep and bear arms is protected under the Second Amendment. If their representatives don't understand and uphold that right, they shouldn't deserve the vote of the people.
So, E.J. Dionne, you've opened up another - well, I don't know if it's a beehive or a can of worms. Choose the columnist's metaphor.
DIONNE: Disagreement is one of the joys of freedom, so I'm glad everyone felt free to write in. As I say, I wish that gentleman could get the NRA to give some of the ground he's talking about. We'd be better off for it. And I am worried that the effect of laws that the NRA wants to do is starting to impinge on the right of those of us who don't want to carry guns.
CONAN: You can find a link to Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne's column at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from the Brookings Institution where he's a senior fellow. Thanks, E.J.
DIONNE: Thanks. Good to be with you.
CONAN: Tomorrow, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.