An Antigun Firefight: Sept. 11 Emboldened Elements of the Gun-Control Lobby, as Seen by a Flurry of Bills and Press Releases. but Infighting within the Ranks about Who Leads the Cause May Doom Any Legislation That Comes out of Congress. (Cover Story)
MacDonald, Sam, Insight on the News
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) brims with confidence when he talks about the gun-control proposal he introduced in the House on March 20. At a press conference to unveil the measure, he predicted that the Gun Show Background Check Act of 2002 (HR4034) will not be an issue in the November elections because it already will have passed. His confidence in this major expansion of gun control stems from the willingness of many Americans to accept infringements on constitutional proscriptions after Sept. 11.
"Now we've got the terrorist issue," Conyers says in response to a question from INSIGHT. "There are very few in the general population who are going to tolerate a loophole through which these weapons are allowed into the war to support terrorism. That is a no-brainer at this point." But, unfortunately for those who share Conyers' view, infighting within the gun-control ranks has been doing more to damage his bill's chances than anything the National Rifle Association (NRA) can muster.
Immediately after 19 terrorists hijacked four fuel-filled passenger planes and shattered America's illusions about homeland security, advocates of gun control began a mad scramble to adjust their message to the new political opportunity -- something they have done consistently following every major gun crime or violent tragedy since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 40 years ago.
One of the first gun-control groups to deliver the rhetorical makeover was the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Just seven days after the disasters, this organization issued a press release headlined: "In the Wake of the Terrorist Attacks, Sarah Brady Warns About the Risks of Guns in the Home." It cited the case of a 3-year-old Virginia boy who killed himself with a handgun his father purchased in response to Sept. 11. "While the Brady Center recognizes that people react to crises in different ways," said the opportunistic release, "this tragedy is a painful reminder, especially to parents, that a gun in the home is far more likely to be used to kill or injure a loved one than be used in self-defense. This nation has lost far too many lives in the past week. Please don't let someone in your family become yet another casualty of a senseless act of violence."
The Brady Center expanded this theme on Dec. 19, 2001, when it issued Guns and Terror: How Terrorists Exploit Our Weak Gun Laws, a 35-page report that features an ominous-looking man in Middle-Eastern garb peering through the scope of a rifle. None of the 19 terrorists was armed with a rifle or gun, but the report claimed that "[f]or terrorists around the world, the United States is the great gun bazaar." When the NRA pointed out that the Sept. 11 hijackers used box cutters, not firearms, to commandeer the four doomed airliners, the Brady Center retorted: "For all the failings of our airport-security system, at least it deterred the terrorists from using guns."
The Brady Center report further criticized Attorney General John Ashcroft for refusing to use records of gun owners generated by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to search for terrorists. And it claimed that terrorists buy firearms at U.S. gun shows.
Gun-control advocates at the Violence Policy Center (VPC) entered the fray on Oct. 10, 2001, with a report called Voting from the Rooftops: How the Gun Industry Armed Osama bin Laden, Other Foreign and Domestic Terrorists and Common Criminals with 50-Caliber Sniper Rifles. The study charges that terrorists purchased 25 high-powered, military-style sniper rifles from Barrett Firearms Manufacturing Inc. in the late 1980s and shipped them to Afghanistan. Barrett responded that it sold the guns to the U.S. government, which provided them to Afghan forces resisting the Soviet invasion.
Gun-rights groups reject the notion that American firearms are fueling world terrorism as silly or worse. In an interview with INSIGHT, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre called the Brady Center and VPC efforts "pathetic. …