Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin speaks with the president of the NRA, David Keene, about gun control proposals currently being debated in Congress.
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address this past week to make an emotional appeal for action on gun violence.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I've said tonight matters little if we don't come together to protect our most precious resource, our children.
MARTIN: The president called for Congress to act on his proposals as victims of gun violence and their families stood and applauded in the hall.
OBAMA: The families of Newtown deserve a vote.
OBAMA: The families of Aurora deserve a vote.
OBAMA: The families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence, they deserve a simple vote.
MARTIN: But there is strong opposition to the president's new gun control plan, both from Members of Congress and outside groups.
I spoke with David Keene this past week. He is the president of the National Rifle Association.
Were you watching the State of the Union?
DAVID KEENE: Yes, I was, as a matter of fact.
MARTIN: What was your reaction in the moment?
KEENE: Well, I thought that the president - we expected him to address the question 'cause it's on his agenda. I think that his remarks were directed more at his own party leadership than anybody else, because a lot of Democrats don't want to have to vote on some of these firearm questions because they've been able over the course of the last few years to avoid such votes.
But the president may rest assured that before this session is over there will be votes that he might like and votes that he might not like and votes that we will use to grade Members of Congress and Members of the Senate.
MARTIN: There are some specific proposals out there. The Obama administration's plan would require background checks for all gun sales. The NRA is against it. Can you explain why?
KEENE: Actually, to be fair to the president, that's not what he's seeking. He immediately said that he would not - in his universal background check proposal, that it would not apply to families and relatives. Because most of the guns - well, half of the guns that are so-called old privately sold are sold within families or inherited within families. Another 20 percent of them or so are sold to neighbors and friends.
Let's say that you live on a farm somewhere and you buy a new shotgun to go duck hunting. And your neighbor says, well, I'll buy the old one. And then you say, but we got to get in the car and we got to go someplace and we got to have all this done here. Your neighbor says, Rachel, you've known me since I was in kindergarten, what's this all about?
And what happens in states that have requirements there, is that that doesn't happen. They just don't do it. And that's the practical difficulty. The further you get away from the regular retail deal, the harder it is. And what we're concerned about is putting too great a burden on people who want to exercise their constitutional right.
MARTIN: Would it be too much to ask people to drive a few more miles with their neighbor who wants to buy their gun, to go make sure they have an appropriate background check? Don't you think you could do that?
KEENE: It sounds simple but a lot of times it's not simple. And that's the problem. Colorado right now, where they have the background checks, there's more than a 10-day waiting period because the system doesn't work. The system is clogged up.
MARTIN: Is 10 days too long to wait?
KEENE: Yes, it is. Some people who buy firearms for self-protection. A woman who is being stalked and that, 10 days could be crucial. And the question is what kind and to what degree do you put a burden on someone to exercise a right that they have? And the point that we've made over and over, over the last decade, is that gun violence is the wrong word. You've got two problems. You've got the mass shooting problem, which generally speaking it is a result of the breakdown of our mental health system. And you've got gun crime.
We know how to deal with gun crime. It can be dealt with successfully and you do that by prosecuting people who use firearms to commit crimes, who misuse firearms. That's one problem. The other problem goes to this question of the - we destroyed our mental health care system in this country. In every single state in the United States today, there are more people in our prisons who have been diagnosed as severely mentally ill than in all the public and private mental health facilities in that state.
And it's those people are people who are slipping into that state that we really need to deal with. And we need to deal with them to get them treatment, and to make sure that those who are dangerous aren't on the street or are getting the treatment they need. And until we do that, you know, they're going to get their hands on guns, on explosives, on all of the things that folks like this do. Because most of these people - and we see this with the shooters - they may be crazy but they're not stupid.
MARTIN: Wouldn't it also help though to just limit their access to the weapons that they do damage with?
KEENE: That's exactly why they should be in the system. I'm not talking about people in the gray area. You don't get denied your constitutional rights because you're mildly depressed or all of those things. But there are people who aren't in the gray area.
MARTIN: I mean, it's a very complicated issue and it's very emotional for people.
KEENE: The NRA was formed in 1871. Between 1871 and the early 1970s, we didn't have a political arm. We didn't have to because there was no real dispute about firearms rights and the Second Amendment. When the so-called cultural wars began in the late '60s and early '70s, things changed. Gun control became the mantra of a lot of politicians, Republicans as well as Democrats.
When Elliot Richardson was attorney general, he advanced a plan which would result in the confiscation of all side arms by the early 1980s. Now, none of those things happened because a conversation took place, a debate took place.
MARTIN: But is this really what you're talking about? Is this getting to the root of the concern, is that this is a slippery slope, and sooner or later a court will decide to change the Second Amendment...
KEENE: Well, let me just give you an example. The administration talk background checks. Diane Feinstein talks about banning the military style, quote, "assault weapon," unquote. Before she entered that legislation, she and Andrew Cuomo both talked about confiscation. They suggest also that a background check system would only work if it includes a national gun registry. And that's what we're concerned about.
A national gun registry is illegal under current statutory law. In other words, if you go through a background check - unless you fail, unless you're a prohibited person - the government is not allowed to keep your information for more than 24 hours. And the reason is we don't want in this country a national gun registry...
KEENE: ...because that's the first step to confiscation. Once they know that you own that shotgun, they can say you're either going to turn it in or were coming after you. The fact of the matter is that this government can't even keep nuclear secrets. And if you establish a gun registry all of this is going to be public information. And that is not good for the gun owner. It's not good for the civil society. Is good for criminals and it is good for people that want to harass folks who were exercising their constitutional rights. And those are the reasons we oppose it.
MARTIN: David Keene, he is the president of the National Rifle Association. He joined us in our studio in Washington.
Mr. Keene, thanks for talking with us.
KEENE: Thank you, anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.