Several months ago, not long before the massacre in Newtown, Conn., I asked Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, why his group refused to argue for amending the Second Amendment.
Maybe a revision stipulating that only members of organized state militias could own firearms. Or maybe spelling out what sort of citizen should be allowed to have weapons, and what sort of weapons would be legal to possess.
Gross was dismissive. “I’m happy to consider the debate on the Second Amendment closed,” he said. “We have to respect the fact that a lot of decent, law-abiding people believe in gun ownership.”
Gross is no gun-lover. His support for the Second Amendment — specifically for the idea, endorsed now by the Supreme Court, that the Constitution guarantees individual gun ownership — seemed to me mainly tactical. And cleverly so. Explicitly supporting the Second Amendment removes an important argument from the ideological arsenal of the National Rifle Association and likeminded groups: that gun-control advocates are actually just dissembling gun-grabbers. We don’t want to seize the guns of law-abiding citizens, Gross was saying. We just want to limit the ability of the violent, the criminal and the deranged to cause harm.
This is why the Brady Campaign, the leading (and most moderate) gun-reform group, made expanding background checks its central goal. Their position seemed reasonable even to someone like me, who believes in the individual right to carry arms and favors issuing “concealed-carry” permits to carefully vetted gun owners. I fear that an expanded background-check system might only have a marginal effect on gun violence. But if it would make it even slightly more difficult for those bent on doing harm to obtain weapons, it would be worth it.
Such a system, however, was simply too much for the NRA to bear, and the group convinced a sufficient number of senators that support for it would cost them their jobs. Which raises a question: If such a reasonable and incremental gun-safety measure, proposed in a spirit of total respect for the Second Amendment, is considered to be too extreme by the NRA; if the reformers’ carefully articulated endorsement of the individual right to own firearms isn’t enough to convince the NRA that they aren’t up against fascist gun-grabbers; and if the NRA is still so powerful that it can defeat a proposal supported by a large majority of Americans, then why not have an actual debate about the Second Amendment?
Why not ask Americans to consider amending the Constitution to spell out more clearly which citizens should have the right to own a gun, and which shouldn’t? Congress, as currently constituted, won’t adopt common-sense and popular reforms. So why not go all the way and talk about what really matters?
I understand that opening this debate wouldn’t result in any amendments being passed. The move would fail, and fail again, and again after that. But over time — sometimes decades — attitudes about important social issues do change. Women did get the right to vote. Black people, too. Gays are gaining the right to marry. And cigarettes were popular once, until they weren’t. A discussion about the Second Amendment would put on the table the issues that Congress, under pressure from the NRA, simply won’t address.
I called Gross on Thursday, the day after the background- check plan was blocked in the Senate, to see if he was wavering on the Second Amendment. He was surprisingly upbeat for the leader of a movement that had just been so comprehensively stymied. He thinks the country is with the Brady Campaign, and not with the NRA, and he said a debate about the Constitution wouldn’t be helpful.
“Turning this into a Second Amendment issue will hurt our cause,” he said. “The Second Amendment has been decided. The fact is, there is a limited right to bear arms, and we have to deal with that. There are a lot of people in our community of organizations and activists seeking gun reform who thought that the decision yesterday was devastating, but I think it has created an opportunity to move the discussion forward, and we don’t need a discussion about the Second Amendment in order to move forward.”
I detected the presence of spin in his words, so I asked him for proof that Wednesday’s obvious defeat contained the seeds of later victory. “We got a majority of senators with us, including six senators with ‘A’ ratings from the NRA,” he said. “The winds are shifting. The American public wants this.”
He went on: “I get what you’re suggesting about the constitutional issue, but I will never abandon an issue that enjoys 90 percent support among the American public. There’s no need to open up the Second Amendment debate because of that support. I mean, we have polls that show that background checks are literally more popular than kittens and baseball. We’ll get there. We don’t need to change the basis of our arguments. We need to make Congress feel the overwhelming public sentiment.”
I wish him well, but I’m not so sure. If the NRA could defeat the most mild and reasonable gun-control measure imaginable only a few short months after the most horrifying mass shooting in American history, I’m pretty sure it could do the same again in a year. This might not be an issue meant for incremental fixes. This might be an issue that needs a full philosophical vetting.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.