Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Undone by the gun lobby

I rarely react to news stories with unfiltered rage. Maybe it's a lack of moral imagination or empathy on my part, since outrages are reported daily.  But today's front-page New York Times account of how the gun lobby, working through a corrupt Congress, has hampered the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco's ability to track guns to their owners and crack down on corrupt dealers left me choking over my leftover Christmas rum cake.

The gun lobby's hobbling of rational gun control is perhaps the perfect instance of government corruption through lobbying, in that the lobby works not simply by buying Congressional reps but by whipping up a substantial, vociferous constituency that gives the corrupted reps political cover; they can cast themselves as defenders of liberty and rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The effect is to weaken the kinds of safeguards that even a large majority of gun owners say they support, such as criminal background checks for all gun buyers. The only credible motivation for legislation recounted by the Times' Erica Goode and Sheryl Gay Stolberg is to boost gun sales:
law enforcement officials and criminal justice experts who would like the A.T.F. to have greater latitude in fighting crime say its effectiveness in reducing gun violence is still hampered by a thicket of laws that limit the information it can obtain and constrain its day-to-day functioning.

The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, for example, prohibits A.T.F. agents from making more than one unannounced inspection per year of licensed gun dealers. The law also reduced the falsification of records by dealers to a misdemeanor and put in place vague language defining what it meant to “engage in business” without a dealer’s license. 

Both provisions, said William J. Vizzard, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at California State University, Sacramento, and a former A.T.F. special agent, made it more difficult for the bureau to go after gun sellers who broke the law. 

The so-called Tiahrt amendments — named for Todd Tiahrt, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, and first attached as riders to appropriations bills in 2003 and 2004 — limited the A.T.F.’s ability to share tracing information on firearms linked to crimes with local and state law enforcement agencies and with the public. Those restrictions have been loosened in subsequent versions of the amendments. But under the most recent Tiahrt amendment, adopted in 2010, the A.T.F. still cannot release anything but aggregate data to the public. The amendment still prohibits the bureau from using tracing data in some legal proceedings to suspend or revoke a dealer’s license, and it requires that records of background checks of gun buyers be destroyed within 24 hours of approval. Advocates of tighter regulation say this makes it harder to identify dealers who falsify records or buyers who make “straw” purchases for others. 

Mr. Gottlieb said the Tiahrt amendment protected data “from people who are anti-gun rights who want to manipulate things” to bolster support for gun regulation. 

Congress has long resisted the idea of a central transaction database
Corruption with a public ideological component skews national priorities as well as lining pockets. While the nation has basically doubled its national security budget since 9/11, domestic dangers get short shrift:
The persistent controversy over the A.T.F.’s role, historians say, also contributed to its neglect in the financing bonanza that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. While other law enforcement agencies like the F.B.I. have benefited from greatly increased budgets and staffing, the A.T.F.’s budget has remained largely stagnant, increasing to about $1.1 billion in the 2012 fiscal year from just over $850 million a decade ago. 
The hobbling is not just financial: the ATF has been denied the kind of data coordination with local authorities that became a national priority for intelligence agencies in the wake of 9/11.

C. S. Lewis' devil Screwtape, describing infernal techniques for leading human beings astray, instructs a junior colleague: "The game is to have them all running around with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under."  That's a pretty perfect description of the NRA- and ALEC-led drives to combat violent crime by arming more and more people in more and more places.  The mix of motives, too, is as subtle as those mapped out by Screwtape: financial gain rationalized by a purported passion for freedom and interest in public safety, self-serving ideological illusions no doubt shared in varying degrees by "gun rights" activists, elected officials and members of the conservative entertainment complex as well as by the larger audience of zealots they inflame.

1 comment:

  1. Now it turns out the NRA has been involving itself in issues that have little or nothing to do with gun rights. In a New York Times opinion piece Linda Greenhouse writes that Mitch McConnell was worried that Judge Sonia Sotomayor would get whopping support from Republican Senators, so he asked the NRA to oppose her nomination & score Senators on their votes, even tho Sotomayor had never ruled on a gun case. She got 7 GOP votes. The NRA did the same with Kagan, who got 5 Republican votes. Greenhouse writes that the process is even more insidious with lower court nominees because they don't get the press coverage the Supreme nominees do.

    In other words, by invitation, the NRA has essentially co-opted the Republican party.