Jack Ohman / johman@sacbee.com

Editorial: Wild gun rhetoric undermines serious debate

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 - 11:53 am | Page 12A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 - 9:45 pm

Inordinate fear, unfortunately, drives the politics of guns in this country, making it extremely difficult to have a rational discussion on reasonable regulation.

Any mention of regulation and the cry goes up – "Get them now before they are taken away!" – though no one is talking about confiscating firearms. Gun sales skyrocket, particularly of military-style semi-automatic rifles, as we've seen since the school massacre in Connecticut.

At a gun show at the state-owned Cow Palace near San Francisco over the weekend, people were loading up guns and ammo by the cartload.

Even before President Barack Obama announced the results of Vice President Joe Biden's anti-gun-violence task force, one member of Congress – Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas – broached the idea of impeachment.

He's throwing a fit because the president is considering executive actions that would improve enforcement of existing law – for example, appointing a director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has been without a head for six years, and requiring federal agencies to cooperate in providing data for background checks.

Outside the halls of Congress, some were broaching the idea of armed resistance if Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, revives the nation's 1994-2004 assault weapons ban. An NRA lobbyist labeled her proposal as one to "take your guns."

Can members of Congress have a rational discussion on a ban on high-capacity detachable ammunition magazines? On requiring a federal background check for all gun sales, including private and gun-show sales? On extending the same laws to ammunition sellers that firearms dealers already follow in getting federal licenses and keeping records of transactions? On allowing federal research on gun violence?

We hope so. None of these measures bode a descent into tyranny. The Second Amendment is not unlimited. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the seminal Heller case: "It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."

At the backdrop of this is an ironic reality, captured in a CNN headline in July: "Fewer U.S. gun owners own more guns." Even as the number of gun sales skyrockets, the number of households with guns is on the decline. That concentration of ownership skews the debate. Hyperenthusiasts drive gun sales and rhetoric.

At a town hall held last Thursday by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, many people were touting conspiracy theories, including sinister-sounding United Nations plots to confiscate American firearms.

In a Jan. 4 column Larry Klayman, a Justice Department prosecutor during the Reagan administration, raised the specter of Obama "banning guns and seizing our weapons." He called for revolt: "The time has come after a long line of 'abuses and usurpations' for us to rise up and demand that our current so-called rulers leave 'Dodge City,' or suffer the consequences as King George III was forced to do."

The question is whether the president and Congress can rise above all of this background noise to enact obvious, common-sense measures to regulate gun sales and ownership in this country. They should not allow paranoia to dominate or derail this necessary task.

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