Hinckley, Jim Brady and the Battle over Gun Control

Reagan assassination attempt, March 30, 1981. Photo credit: Reagan Library / Wikimedia, Dennis Henigan and Beacon Press

You may be surprised to learn that the majority of gun owners believe in many commonsense gun control measures. And, at one time, the National Rifle Association (NRA) actually supported background checks. But in the 1970s, a well-funded, very vocal, very motivated, minority took over the organization, and has been in control ever since, promoting its own agenda.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy Podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks to Dennis A. Henigan — a former vice president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and a longtime leading advocate for stronger gun control — who reveals many more surprising facts.

He details how polling shows that even those who support some kind of limited gun control or background checks feel that it won’t make a real difference, so it’s not something they want to take a stand on, or fight with their neighbors about.

But it has already made a difference. Were it not for the Brady Bill, according to Henigan, over two million felons would have bought guns — and those were just the ones that were turned away.

As Henigan explains, the NRA has managed to convince politicians that somehow, in order to justify stronger gun laws, you have to show it’s going to stop every shooting, a standard of success that we expect from no other kind of law. Automobiles are potentially very dangerous, but we do not expect the regulation of automobiles to prevent every traffic accident.

Henigan tells WhoWhatWhy that this is not a legal problem as he sees it, but strictly a political and cultural problem. He also points out that the model already exists — in the registration of machine guns — for the comprehensive licensing and registration of all guns.

As we’ve detailed in a previous podcast, Smart Gun technology could make a difference, but the fear and passivity of the gun manufactures makes it a non-starter. Henigan reminds us that when an executive at Smith & Wesson once broke ranks, there was a boycott of the company’s products.

Will things change? Henigan explains that polling demonstrates that swing voters in the suburbs, particularly women, care about this issue. It even resonates with a lot of Republican women.

Dennis Henigan is the author of “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People”: And Other Myths About Guns and Gun Control (Published by Beacon Press, July 26, 2016)

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman:  Welcome to radio Whowantwhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Today, a federal judge ruled that John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate President Reagan 35 years ago, be released from a Virginia psychiatric hospital. Also shot in that assassination attempt was then White House Press Secretary James Brady. Since then the late Jim Brady and his wife Sarah and their family have been national leaders in the effort to prevent gun violence. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence is an almost singular bulwark in the battle with the well funded NRA. Today the debate about gun violence is more heated than ever. The NRA has redoubled its efforts, gun sales are skyrocketing, the bumper sticker slogans are everywhere, and fear of violence is begetting more violence. Today on radio Whowhatwhy we’re going to talk to Dennis Henigan. He’s a former vice president of the Brady Center. He’s been a leading advocate for stronger gun control for over 20 years, and it is my pleasure to welcome Dennis Henigan here to radio Whowhatwhy. Dennis, thanks so much for joining us.

Dennis Henigan: It’s great to be with you, Jeff. Thanks so much.

Jeff: I want to talk first a little history. How did we get to the point that we are so polarized about guns in America?

Dennis: You know, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, if you look at the history of the NRA, you can find documents in which the NRA actually supported the idea of a background check. They supported certain common sense measures. Back in those days, the NRA was primarily a service organization catering to hunters. They were not ideological, and they were not so politically active. But that all changed. It changed back in the 1970s, and now we have a situation in which the NRA, I think, is one of the most socially destructive interest groups in our society, quite frankly. They are very well funded, they strike fear into the hearts of lot of weak-kneed politicians, and they have frustrated the ability of the majority of Americans to get the gun laws they need and deserve. The vast majority of the American people support such measures as universal background checks, and a ban on assault weapons, a ban on suspected terrorists getting guns. And yet, Congress is completely paralyzed by the political influence of the NRA.

Jeff: And yet, if the majority of people feel that there needs to be something done in terms of these gun laws, if that’s the prevailing sentiment, how is it that the NRA, and that those efforts to block any kind of legislation at all, have been so successful?

Dennis: Well, I think this is a real case study in the breakdown of our political system. The way our system is supposed to work, if 90% of the American people want the enactment of a measure like universal background checks, it ought to be done. That’s sort of the ideal way we think our system ought to function, and yet it is not functioning. I think what you have is a very vocal and very motivated minority of gun owners. Even the majority of gun owners favors many common sense gun control measures. So a minority of very vocal gun owners, backed by a very well funded lobby, is able to intimidate our politicians. On the other hand, you have the majority who favor stronger gun laws, not as active, not as vocal, and also seemingly not as willing to make this a voting issue. The perception on Capitol Hill is that the only way you lose votes on the gun issue is to stand up to the NRA, that there’s no political cost to actually voting against sensible gun laws. And so we need that relatively silent majority to become far more active and far more intimidating itself.

Jeff: How is it that the NRA has been as effective in getting their message out there?

Dennis: Well, I think that part of it is that they have been able to reduce the themes that they articulate to some clever bumper sticker slogans. Slogans like “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But it’s not simply a matter of messaging. What I found through years of working on this issue is that some of these themes actually resonate among people who intellectually favor stronger gun laws, but quite frankly aren’t sure they’re going to make that much difference in their lives if they were enacted. For example, we see the vast majority of the American people favoring such measures as background checks, but if you ask them, “Do you think background checks are going to have a significant effect on criminal activity with guns?” A majority will say, “Well, not very much.” And that’s a problem because if people just intellectually favor a policy but don’t think it’s going to make much difference in their lives, they’re not likely to be activated, they’re not likely to vote the issue. And so, part of what I’m trying to do is to marshall all the evidence that actually demonstrates that sensible gun laws can be effective, that it can make our communities and our families safer and so that we convince those who intellectually favor these policies that they ought to become more active.

Jeff: Why has it been so difficult to make the incremental argument that people get security for their homes but they know that’s not full proof? They do things to make themselves safer but those aren’t full proof. The idea is that everything that you do makes it a little more difficult for the burglar or for anybody else that there’s no such thing as perfect security, but that you try and improve the situation little by little, step-by-step. Why have gun control advocates been so unsuccessful in making that argument?

Dennis: Well, I think that, you know, the NRA has managed to convince politicians that somehow in order to justify stronger gun law, you have to show it’s going to stop every shooting. A standard of success that we expect from no other kind of law whatsoever. We would not advocate repealing our laws against homicide because some people violate them and kill people. And yet the NRA has constructed this artificially high standard for our gun laws. So I think that what people need to understand is that we need to approach the issue of regulation of firearms the same way that we approach regulation of other dangerous products. For example, automobiles. I mean, automobiles are potentially very dangerous. We do not expect the regulation of automobiles to prevent every traffic accident, and certainly we don’t say “Well the only thing we’re going to do to address the issue of traffic accidents is to punish reckless drivers after the fact.” In fact, we have a whole host of policies directed at, first of all, preventing reckless drivers from ever getting behind the wheel. So we have a licensing system where you have to be trained to operate the automobile and show that you’re qualified before you ever are given a driver’s license. We have a registration system that makes automobile owners accountable for their autos. We have a whole host of safety standards that are enforced. We recall defective automobiles. We don’t have any of that on guns and part of it is this false notion that somehow with respect to gun laws, if you can’t achieve perfection then you shouldn’t enact them at all. But we need to start by thinking about why would we approach guns any differently than we approach other dangerous products.

Jeff: Part of the argument to what you’re saying is how they’re looked at as a right versus privilege. When we talk about automobiles, driver’s licenses, and registration, it’s built on the argument that driving is a privilege and therefore you need to fulfill all these obligations. There is the argument that’s made with respect to gun laws that gun ownership is a right and that it’s guaranteed by the Constitution unlike driving or a motor vehicle or owning a motor vehicle.

Dennis: Well, it’s interesting because for most of our history the Supreme Court interpreted the Second Amendment as applying only to the bearing of arms as part of a well-regulated militia. It was only until very recently that the Supreme Court recognized any kind of individual right to have a gun for private self-defense.  But even in that decision–the Heller decision back in 2008–the Supreme Court recognized that this right is not absolute and that it is subject to reasonable conditions to protect public health and safety and even said it should not be considered a threat to many long-standing gun laws. So what Heller did was it struck down a law that completely banned handguns in the home for self-defense. But there are a whole host of gun laws that have been in effect for many years that have been upheld by the courts since Heller, and I believe we could strengthen our gun laws considerably without the risk of them being struck down by the courts. So I think the real problem is a political problem. It’s not a constitution problem.

Jeff: It is as you talk about not only a political problem, but a cultural problem.

Dennis: Well, it is in the sense that, you know, the NRA has been brilliant at convincing gun owners that the gun control debate is really about culture; It’s really about their core values as people, and the gun control proponents simply don’t understand those values and want to destroy those values. I don’t think the gun control debate needs to be seen in that context. That’s another fundamental change that we need to make in the way we approach this issue. We need to approach this issue as a very difficult problem. A problem of extraordinary levels of injury and death from gunfire that are not experienced in other Western industrialized nations, and put ourselves to the task of figuring out practical solutions. The idea of a universal background check is not an attack on anyone’s values. It should not be considered a threat to law-abiding gun owners. It should be a threat only to those with a criminal record or other record of dangerousness. And so I think part of the challenge is to ensure going forward that the gun issue is not seen as a cultural issue. This is a ploy used by the NRA to convince gun owners that the debate isn’t really about modest sensible measures like universal background checks but really about their values, when in fact it doesn’t need to be.

Jeff: Of course then we hear the slippery slope argument.

Dennis: The slippery slope argument is a central tactic that the gun lobby uses again to convince gun owners that the debate is really not about measures like background checks or prohibiting assault weapons. And that once those kinds of proposals are enacted into law, they will become just steps down the slippery slope to what gun control advocates really want and that’s to confiscate all guns. But you know we heard that same argument during the fight over the Brady bill in the early 1990s. Fortunately the Congress didn’t listen to it. The Congress enacted the Brady bill. If it hadn’t enacted the Brady bill, we would’ve had over two million felons and other prohibited gun buyers since that bill was passed, be able to go into gun stores, lie on the federal form, and walk out with a gun. So there is a real social cost in allowing these kinds of slippery slope arguments to carry the day because they mean that we don’t enact measures that make sense, that will save lives, because of some speculation that somehow they’re going to lead down the slippery slope to gun confiscation.

Jeff: Where does the gun industry itself stand in this debate?

Dennis: Well, that’s a really interesting question. Right now, quite frankly, the gun industry seems to be joined at the hip with the NRA. It wasn’t always the case. Actually back in the 1990s, we began to see fissures between the gun industry and the NRA. There were moderate forces within the gun industry that recognize that the industry could do just fine even after gun control provisions were enacted into law, and that in fact, these remarkable levels of gun violence were actually a long-term threat to the industry because they invited more draconian action. Those moderate forces, though, have, to my way of viewing it, disappeared. I don’t see any evidence of them. Unfortunately, I think the NRA has contributed that by sending a message through the years that any gun manufacturers that espouse a moderate path will be the subject of reprisals. We saw a massive boycott of Smith & Wesson guns, for example when that company agreed to settle lawsuits brought by cities against various gun manufacturers. And they settled those suits by committing themselves to substantial changes in the way their guns would be distributed, in the design of their guns, all with the objective of reducing the use of Smith & Wesson guns, in crime, and in accidental shootings. You know, that was very threatening to the gun industry, it was very threatening to the NRA because it was basically a gun manufacturer saying, “Yes, there are things that the industry can do that will reduce gun death and injury.” And the consequence was, as I said, a massive boycott inspired by the NRA that sent a message to Smith & Wesson and the rest of the industry. And now if there are moderate forces within the industry, we just don’t hear them.

Jeff: What about the issue of smart guns? We’ve been hearing a lot more about that. What impact do you think that can have? Is that something organizations like the Brady Center and others are advocating for?

Dennis: Well, I think that the concept of smart guns has potential. The idea there is that you change the design of guns so that they can only be used by the authorized owner. Every time I use my smart phone, I put my fingerprints right on there and that enables me to use that phone but not anybody else. The technology clearly exists and the challenge is to adapt it to guns so that we prevent these horrible tragedies where kids find their parents’ gun stored under the bed, get a hold of the gun, and shoot themselves or shoot a friend. This kind of technology could also reduce the incidence of suicide, particularly adolescent suicide if guns are not operable by adolescents in the home. It could also have an impact on the problem of gun theft. If a gun is stolen from a home–but it can’t be operated because the gun can be used only by its authorized owner–it could have an impact on the diversion of guns to the illegal market through theft. So it has a great deal of potential, but unfortunately, the NRA through its ideology that anything we do to the gun to try to prevent misuse of guns is a first step down the slippery slope to banning them. That ideology has proven to be a barrier to progress, and it’s unfortunate.

Jeff: What is it that keeps organizations like the Brady Center and similar organizations going, given the resistance, the powerful resistance that they have felt for so many years?

Dennis: Because they have a great deal of support among the American people. There are a lot of people who are motivated to support organizations like Brady. There are also new organizations that have emerged, particularly since the horrible shooting at Sandy Hook. So there is greater and greater public support to take on the NRA. I am encouraged by that. I think the general level of activism and involvement on the side of sensible gun laws is a reason for optimism. I hope my book will help to move the needle even further and even faster.

Jeff: The degree to which the issue has become even more politicized in an election year. Talk a little bit about that aspect.

Dennis: This is, in large part, a political problem. And what needs to happen is that more and more Americans need to make this a voting issue, and it needs to be clear that some politicians, who have chosen to adhere to the NRA line, pay a political price, that they lose their seats because they have opposed sensible gun laws. On the other hand, it must be equally clear that politicians, who particularly in swing districts that could go either way, have supported sensible gun laws and have won. It’s very important to make that political case, and that’s going to send the signal to politicians on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures, that first of all, there’s nothing to fear from supporting stronger gun laws, and actually there’s a great deal to gain politically from doing so.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about how you make the case that there’s something to gain politically.

Dennis: Well, even just looking at it from a political standpoint, a lot of swing districts, districts that could go Republican or Democratic, are in the suburbs. There has been a lot of polling to demonstrate that swing voters in the suburbs, particularly female voters, care about this issue. It even resonates with a lot of Republican women in the suburbs. So that has a great deal of political potential in these swing districts that has really not been exploited. For years, the Democratic Party was fearful of the gun issue. They just did not think that gun control was worth the political price. I think a new political calculus has occurred in the Democratic Party. In addition to the fact that I think a lot a lot of folks in the Democratic Party were just sick and tired of these massacres because you now see the party completely embracing the gun control agenda. Hopefully, they will be able to demonstrate in this election that gun control is a political plus for the party. I think Hillary Clinton is absolutely committed to pursuing a strong gun control agenda, and I think she will continue to make it a campaign issue. I’m hopeful that the Republicans will find themselves quite vulnerable on that issue.

Jeff: Is “gun control” the wrong word to use? Is there something in that phrase that has a certain kind of reaction from people?

Dennis: Well, I know there are a lot of folks in the movement who have decided not to use that phrase. I think what’s happened is that the NRA has been successful in redefining that phrase to mean something equivalent to banning guns. Frankly, I don’t think we ought to let them get away with it. I think that we should reclaim the term “gun control” and redefine it to where it was 20-30 years ago. When we had a statute passed, called “the Gun Control Act of 1968”, it didn’t ban a single gun. It didn’t use to be associated with the idea of banning guns. I think it’s a perfectly accurate and serviceable phrase, and I think the movement should reclaim it and not jettison it. That’s my view.

Jeff: Beyond background checks, what are the priorities? How does the movement prioritize the issues it would like to work on?

Dennis: I think by and large universal background checks is the premier agenda item on the gun control agenda right now. But I think that, ultimately, we need to move to a system of gun licensing and registration that will allow us to do the most effective job we can in preventing dangerous people from getting guns. I would refer to the system that has been in place at the federal level with respect to machine guns since the 1930s, which is not a ban but is actually a licensing, registration, and taxation system that even the gun lobby admits has functioned effectively to make the use of machine guns and crime relatively insignificant. So we actually have a model in our own laws right now, and I think we should be moving towards that model. The system of universal background checks is absolutely crucial right now, but we can make it even more effective, again without moving to a gun ban.

Jeff: What about assault weapons bans? How does that fit into the equation right now?

Dennis: My view is that it makes common sense to take these military style weapons off our streets. I don’t think it will have a major impact on gun crime. What it does is it takes the most lethal gun out of the hands of criminals, which is an enormous help to our law enforcement officers who face these guns in the streets. In fact, it’s law enforcement that has pressed for an assault weapon ban for many years. But it should not be oversold because assault weapons have always been disproportionately used in crime, but they do not represent a majority of the guns used in crime. So I think it’s an important and necessary element of an overall gun control strategy, but if we’re talking about a comprehensive system of licensing and registration, I think that would be much more effective.

Jeff: What if anything has been found to be the nexus between crime statistics and various historical points where there has been more or less focus on this issue of gun control?

Dennis: Well, I think in large part gun control has been enacted in response to spikes in gun crime. I think also you can make a very strong case that there really hasn’t been a comprehensive gun control ever enacted in this country, not even close. But what we have seen is enough evidence that even modest gun control measures like the Brady bill can make a big difference. I mentioned that since the Brady bill was enacted, we stopped well over two million prohibited gun buyers from buying guns at gun stores. It’s interesting that beginning around the time the Brady bill became effective we began to see a dramatic drop in gun crime. Certainly there were many factors in that drop, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the beginning of this historic drop in gun crime coincided with the enactment of the Brady bill. After all we should presume that it would make a difference if, you know, over two million criminals were unable to get guns to their preferred way of getting. That ought to make a difference, and I think there is a strong inferential case that it has. But we can also learn a great deal from the experience of other nations that have much more comprehensive control of guns and have far, far less incidence of a gun homicide and overall homicide than we do. So there is quite a lot of evidence that stronger gun laws can make a huge difference.

Jeff: And finally, tell us a little bit about the Brady Center itself.

Dennis: The Brady Center has been around since the 1970s. It’s kind of a citizen lobby in the sense that it has always been driven by the support of the public. It has always been an important voice for gun violence victims. After all, Jim Brady was a victim of gun violence. Sarah Brady was an absolutely inspirational figure for the movement. Unfortunately, Jim and Sarah are gone now. They both passed away, but their legacy continues. I think it is an inspiration for everyone in the movement, not just of the Brady organization.

Jeff: Dennis Henigan, thank you so much for spending time with us.

Dennis: It was my pleasure, thank you.

Jeff: And thank you for listening and joining us here on radio Whowhatwhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio Whowhatwhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from President Reagan waves to crowd immediately before being shot, 1981 (Reagan Library / Wikimedia)

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2 responses to “Hinckley, Jim Brady and the Battle over Gun Control”

  1. Blackrobe says:

    Love the headline..”battle over gun control”. There is no battle merely an ineffectual whimper each time a few dozen Americans are shot in the same week a few sobs in the media and then bang,bang. In a nation built on slaughter nothing will change until that work is done.

  2. Hunter.Forrest says:

    Absolutely amazing.

    Not one word that this guy’s brother was set to dine with the VP’s son on that day, but cancelled once it was determined the VP would remain VP for 8 more years.

    So much for answering W, W, W. Phff.