Local critics of gun-control measures from both sides
GAZETTE FILE PHOTO On the eve of an expected vote in the Senate on President Barack Obama's gun control measures, some Valley residents are expressing dissatisfaction with the focus on expanded background checks for gun buyers and stiffer penalties for gun trafficking and illegal gun sales. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — On the eve of likely Senate action on gun control legislation, many Valley residents expressed dissatisfaction Wednesday with the anticipated reforms. Some see governmental overreach, while others call the proposals a retreat.
Legislation before the Senate, barring delays or a filibuster, is expected to focus on expanded federal background checks for gun buyers and stiffer penalties for gun trafficking and illegal gun sales.
The absence of an assault weapons ban, which the president earlier advocated, or a ban on high-capacity magazines, which is also expected to be left out of the Senate’s bill, troubles some area residents.
“I see no reason for leaving them out, that’s what bothers me,” said Mel Grant, a World War II veteran from Northampton. “There’s no logical reason for these things to be left out with the exception of some of these senators getting re-elected.”
“It’s 100 percent selfish,” he added.
Grant said talk among Republican senators about delaying debate on the bill or filibustering it upsets him “and I would imagine most people feel the same way.”
Bruce McMahon, Easthampton’s police chief, said little is likely to change in Massachusetts if new legislation passes, because the state already requires a criminal history check on every gun permit it issues.
McMahon said he can see both sides of the debate, but says background checks won’t necessarily prevent another mass shooting.
“If people are intent on doing something, they will do it with or without a permit,” he said.
McMahon called the bill “feel-good legislation” that won’t likely have an effect on curbing gun violence.
“We’re finding a lot of people who commit crimes (with a gun) don’t have a permit to begin with,” he said.
He said once someone who is suspected of having committed a crime with a weapon is apprehended, it’s often discovered that the weapon was stolen or acquired illegally, circumventing the permit application and legal purchase process.
What would be more effective, McMahon said, would be to increase penalties for gun theft and for using a gun during the commission of a crime.
“Those laws need to have some real bite to them,” McMahon said.
McMahon and others interviewed said the strict Massachusetts background check system doesn’t seem to have lowered the violent crime rate in the state.
The National Rifle Association issued a statement Wednesday saying it, too, believes expanding background checks would not have prevented recent mass shootings around the country.
“Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools,” part of the NRA statement reads.
“We need a serious and meaningful solution that addresses crime in cities like Chicago, addresses mental health deficiencies, while at the same time protecting the rights of those of us who are not a danger to anyone. President Obama should be as committed to dealing with the gang problem that is tormenting honest people in his hometown as he is to blaming law-abiding gun owners for the acts of psychopathic murderers,” the NRA said.
Michael Weisser, owner of the Ware Gun Shop, said much of the debate over gun regulations gets lost due to high emotions on both sides of the issue.
He said gun owners who obey the laws and follow regulations and safety protocols often feel slighted when they are instructed about responsibility from the approximately 50 percent of Americans who don’t own a weapon and have no interest in getting one.
“Gun owners get angry when people who don’t own guns lecture them on responsibility,” Weisser said.
“The argument is over the amount of regulation,” he said.
He said debate over gun regulations often falls along clear social divisions, as gun owners tend to represent a more rural and conservative demographic.
Weisser said he’s sold approximately 14,000 guns from his shop since opening it 11 years ago. A quarter of his customers are hard-core gun enthusiasts, he said, who may see any attempt at further regulation of their hobby as an infringement of their rights.
“Nobody likes to be regulated,” Weisser said.
Proposed changes to background checks will likely not affect most people looking to purchase a firearm, Weisser said, and may mean only a small increase in the amount of paperwork required to be filed by dealers.
“It’s filling out two forms and making a phone call,” Weisser said of the check process.
Vijay Prashad, a Northampton resident and professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., described the gun debate in the United States as “very toxic.”
“This is not just a consequence of the NRA, although they don’t help,” Prashad wrote in an email to the Gazette.
He said the toxicity comes against the backdrop of an economic, race relations and social malaise over the past three decades that has disempowered sections of U.S. society.
“This is the context in which guns have become a kind of security blanket in the absence of robust social movements that have tried to give people power over a real disenfranchisement that has taken place,” Prashad said.
He said modest legislative changes, such as an assault weapons ban, are worthwhile but inefficient endeavors.
“The real change has to come from political leadership and social mobilization,” he said. “The latter emerges periodically and runs out of steam; the former is simply happy with electoral victories and is unwilling to lead as much as govern.”
Others say expanded background checks would do little to curb gun violence and much to erode Second Amendment rights. A new national registry of gun owners held in perpetuity would also open the door to spot checks of firearms and confiscation, cautions Kirk Whatley of Hadley, a gun owner and NRA-certified firearms instructor.
“I see people who have no idea what they’re talking about, trying to make laws that they are clueless about,” Whatley said of federal lawmakers as they prepare to debate. “What we’ve got here is a total violation and stomping and erasing of the Second Amendment.”
Whatley said misinformation has been spread about loopholes in firearms background checks by lawmakers as well as the president, statements that rely on limited data from the 1990s, before the National Instant Criminal Backround Check System (NICS) went into effect.
“Even though he knows it’s not current, President Obama is saying that 40 percent of the firearms sold are done without background checks,” Whatley said.
What would be far more effective in controlling gun violence in the country is enforcing laws on the books, including in Massachusetts, which call for incarcerating convicted felons caught with firearms.
“If you lock up repeat offenders, crime goes down,” Whatley said. “The problem with this universal background check is criminals are not going to register their guns.”