As the gun control debate heats up, attention focused Wednesday on President Obama’s smorgasbord of proposals for federal legislation and executive action. In fact, the real action in the near future will take place on the state level.
That’s the view from here in Las Vegas, where the gun industry is holding its annual trade show, a gathering where the largest manufacturers and distributors of firearms and ammunition display their ware for tens of thousands of retail gun dealers.
People in the gun trade are counting on the National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress—mostly Republicans, but also plenty of pro-gun Democrats from battleground states—to tie up the president’s proposals on restricting so-called assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. As I wrote in my last dispatch from the SHOT (Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade) Show, many in the gun industry would have no objection to requiring background checks for all gun sales, but the NRA will fight that idea, too. The group’s apocalyptic e-mail fundraising appeal this morning from Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre describes Obama’s program this way: “It’s not about protecting children. It’s not about stopping crime. It’s about banning your guns … PERIOD!”
With that level of hysteria from the pro-gun camp, we are in for a long and probably unproductive debate on Capitol Hill.
The states, however, are already moving, led by Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York, who has pushed through stiff new restrictions on military-style semiautomatic weapons and large ammo mags. The New York legislation includes a controversial new requirement that mental health professionals report on patients they deem dangerous to themselves or others, so that law enforcement can check whether they have weapons. Look for other states, such as Connecticut, site of the Newtown school massacre; Colorado, site of the Aurora movie theater shooting; and California and Massachusetts, where gun-control forces are relatively strong, to follow New York’s lead.
According to gun-industry veterans, none of whom wants to be quoted for fear of retribution from the NRA, changes in gun laws at the state level could discourage more casual gun owners from buying their next firearm or a big batch of ammunition for use at the range. If there are new paperwork requirements and new rules to figure out, those become deterrents to discretionary consumer activity. Over the past several decades, the hunting industry has suffered in part because of the difficulties hunters face obtaining licenses and permission to use public land for their hobby.
The questions this leaves, though, are important ones. If new state restrictions impede access to firearms and ammunition for law-abiding citizens, will they also hamper would-be criminals? Since no one is proposing gun confiscation, and we already have a populace armed with 300 million firearms, will restrictions on new sales hinder the next suicidal psychopath determined to take a bunch of innocent people down with him?
The NRA’s answer, of course, is no. Governor Cuomo’s and President Obama’s answer is yes. Look to New York and certain other states to serve as the laboratories.
Barrett, an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, is author, most recently, of GLOCK: The Rise of America’s Gun.