Less than a year ago, it seemed as though only the most vehemently anti-gun politicians wanted to go near the issue of gun control. Polls persistently showed that by a wide margin, most Americans didn’t support new gun control measures. In the national media there were a few articles that declared the gun control debate over. How quickly things can change.
As we all know, the horrific mass murder of school children at Sandy Hook Elementary school, just one of a string of high-profile mass shootings, has brought the issue of second amendment rights and gun control to the forefront of the current political debate, in Washington and in the media.
It’s a serious issue that deserves serious discussion, but it seems that the concerns of hunters and recreational shooters are not being addressed in most media coverage.
That’s why Field & Stream is launching this series of interviews on the topic. In the coming weeks, we’ll be talking about gun rights with some of the leaders in the sportsmen’s community--heads of conservation and sportsmen’s rights groups, executives from firearm companies, politicians, industry leaders and representatives. Next we’ll be running an interview with one of the most prominent voices when it comes to defending second amendment rights: Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President and CEO of the National Rifle Association.
We’re kicking this off with an interview with Vice President Biden, the Administration’s point man on their gun control proposals, and the most visible and vocal official pushing for them.
The Vice President understands the size and political power of the sportsmen’s community, and that is why his office approached us with a specific request: they wanted to answer questions directly from Field & Stream readers. So we put out a call, and in five days we had over 1,000 questions--the vast majority of them smart, thoughtful, and tough.
So armed with reader questions, I sat down with the Vice President in his White House office. It’s important to note that I had only a half an hour, not a lot of time for so many great questions and such an important and complicated topic. While there were a number of places where I would have liked to go deeper, I wanted to be sure I touched on all on the topics that came up again and again from readers: the Second Amendment, bans on AR-style rifles, magazine capacity limits, universal background checks and gun registry, gun control and crime, and mental health. I asked specific questions from individual readers, and I followed up with questions of my own as the discussion allowed.
Another important thing to note: this is an interview, not a debate. I was not there to argue with the Vice President about what I, or sportsmen, think about this issue. I was there to ask the tough questions that would make him explain the administration’s proposals and positions. Frankly, these questions are not being asked in much of the media. Whether it's ignorance of the issues or an outright hostility for firearms, time and time again critical points are glossed over or completely ignored in much of coverage of the issue. Sportsmen are too passionate and too knowledgeable on the subject to let that happen.
One thing we know at Field & Stream is to never underestimate the smarts and the power of the American sportsmen. We think this interview is a perfect demonstration of that, and the more that we, as a group, can make our voices heard and to talk directly to the people in power who are driving policy that directly affects us—from guns to conservation—the better we can stand up for what we believe in.
by Anthony Licata
Topic: THE SECOND AMENDMENT
FIELD & STREAM: Let’s start with a baseline understanding for the discussion about the Second Amendment. And this question is from Dan Beltran, who is a chief warrant officer with the U.S. Army, and he’s an Apache helicopter fighter pilot.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Tell him, thank him for his service.
F&S: His question to you is “What do you think is the meaning of the Second Amendment? Do you think it is to allow citizens to be armed only to protect themselves from criminals, or was it written to allow the citizenry to offer defense against foreign invaders or oppressive, tyrannical government?”
V.P. BIDEN: It was written primarily for self-defense. The argument about whether or not it was, you know, that famous phrase of Jefferson’s, “The tree of liberty is watered with the blood of patriots,” which is often used by people who are super-enthusiasts—the Supreme Court has ruled that it’s an individual right. It is not a corporate right. It is not related to a well-established militia, a well-regulated militia. But it also has ruled that it is constitutional to own a gun individually for purposes of sporting, hunting, and/or self-defense.
F&S: Do you think it’s an individual right?
V.P. BIDEN: It is an individual right, but it is also clear constitutionally that the government can limit the type of weapon you can own. For example, if the idea was to be able to repel a tyrannical government, then you should be able to own an F-15 if you have the money to buy it, with full ordnance. But you’re not allowed to do that, and the court says you can deny certain weapons available for individual ownership. You can’t have a nuclear bomb. So it is an individual right. You have a right for self-defense against any intruder or any illegal activity being perpetrated on you, and for your physical self-defense.
PROPOSED BANS OF AR-STYLE RIFLES
F&S: We had a lot of questions from readers about how these proposals from the administration fit within that definition you described. We had several readers point out that in the 2010 Heller decision, the Supreme Court said the Second Amendment protects the right to keep and carry firearms that are the sorts of weapons that are in common usage at the time. Weapons that are not highly unusual in society or dangerous and unusual weapons, that are used for traditionally lawful purposes.
V.P. BIDEN: Yeah.
F&S: So we have a question from Christopher Snyder from Tucson, Ariz., who says, “How does the administration plan to address the fact that over 4 million AR-15-style rifles have been legally sold and purchased, and are routinely used by sportsmen, hunters, and others for everyday legal activity? Can you explain the administration’s legal rationale for believing that these semiautomatic rifles can be regulated through Congress and now through an amendment to the Constitution?”
V.P. BIDEN: The answer is that there is a clear argument within the definition of the Supreme Court laid out that that particular weapon is not a usual weapon in the sense that you need it for your self-protection or for hunting purposes. If you have to go up into the Poconos and go bear hunting or deer hunting with that weapon, and you need a clip that has 30 rounds in it, then you shouldn’t be hunting. You’re a danger to yourself. If you can’t get the bear or the deer in four or five shots, you’ve got a problem.
F&S: What about the other uses, for self-defense and target practice?
V.P. BIDEN: Well, the way in which we measure it is—I think most scholars would say—is that as long as you have a weapon sufficient to be able to provide your self-defense. I did one of these town-hall meetings on the Internet and one guy said, “Well, what happens when the end days come? What happens when there’s the earthquake? I live in California, and I have to protect myself.”
I said, “Well, you know, my shotgun will do better for you than your AR-15, because you want to keep someone away from your house, just fire the shotgun through the door.” Most people can handle a shotgun a hell of a lot better than they can a semiautomatic weapon in terms of both their aim and in terms of their ability to deter people coming. We can argue whether that’s true or not, but it is no argument that, for example, a shotgun could do the same job of protecting you. Now, granted, you can come back and say, “Well, a machine gun could do a better job of protecting me.” No one’s arguing we should make machine guns legal.
F&S: Many of our readers asked a question that gets to the heart of what you’re saying here. What’s the difference between, say, a semiautomatic hunting rifle that has traditional looks and characteristics and one that is an AR and labeled an assault rifle? One of the criticisms has been that it’s really only about cosmetic features—pistol grips, rails, barrel shrouds. How do those features make a rifle any more deadly or dangerous than a semiautomatic rifle that has a—
V.P. BIDEN: The thing that makes it the deadliest are the size of the round and how many rounds you have in a magazine. And the cops are coming to us and saying, “We’re being outgunned. We’re being outgunned.” And so there’s always a balancing test, whether it’s the First Amendment, the Second Amendment, an individual right to use the weapon, is whether or not that weapon—if it had a magazine with only 10 shells in it as opposed to 30 or more, does that make a difference?
Does it make a difference in terms of the public safety of the, in this case, police officers who are being outgunned for someone to be able to have a weapon that has a much longer range and greater lethality with, you know, 10, 20, 30 or 40 rounds?
And so the question is, is that necessary for you to protect yourself? How many legitimate hunters go out and hunt like that?
F&S: It’s a very popular rifle, and it’s popular for varmints and smaller game, and actually, the round is actually not as effective or powerful as many more traditional big-game rounds.
V.P. BIDEN: Well, I think that’s true. In fact, I know that’s true, having fired the assault weapons or however you want to characterize semiautomatic rifles. But the answer is that basically police say, “We’re being outgunned,” and the limitation on the individual right to bear arms, hunt, protect yourself, et cetera, is not infringed upon to any degree, and it’s offset by the public need for that to be eliminated as a weapon being able to be used against, in this case, police officers.
F&S: Well, this brings up a common question that we got from a lot of readers, and I’ll use the reader Mike Hooker who asked this: “AR-style rifles, or what are being called assault rifles, are in fact used for many legitimate purposes. What is the reason for banning these popular rifles when, according to the 2011 FBI Uniform Crime Report, they are used in fewer than 1 percent of all firearm-related criminal homicides?”
V.P. BIDEN: Because there are so many out there, and police don’t want more out there, because they’re being outgunned. That’s the reason why.
F&S: According to the statistics, more handguns are used in crimes.
V.P. BIDEN: Well, by the way, that’s true. That’s absolutely true. That’s why we want to limit the clips, the size of the magazine on handguns.
F&S: Let’s talk about that, the magazine capacity, because that was another common question. And I guess this one can sum up a lot of the way our readers are thinking about it, and this is from David Grant from Windsor, Colo. He says, “Considering that with only minimal training, a magazine in a semiautomatic handgun or rifle can be replaced in about three seconds, what is the purpose served by limiting the magazines to 10 rounds or less?”
V.P. BIDEN: Well, let me give David a concrete example. If in fact the only thing available was 10 rounds in the AR-15 used by the guy who butchered those children up in Sandy Hook, he would have had to change that magazine three more times. And in that time frame, the police would have been there sooner, saving the lives of one or two or three children who got shot.
And by the way, it’s only when, in changing the magazine, that we understand so far, that he jammed, that he had a problem. And he faced the police, and he chose instead, rather than be able to continue to take them out, just to shoot himself. He blew his own brains out.
You talk to Gabby Gifford, what happened was that although [the shooter used] a larger magazine, had he not fumbled in changing the magazine, if he’d had an even larger magazine, he wouldn’t have to change it. If he didn’t fumble in changing the magazine, they’d all be dead. A woman leaned out, grabbed his arm. That’s what got them to knock him down. That’s what happened.
It is true that somebody who knows—you can have a Secret Service agent, it’s about a second and three quarters to change that magazine. If you’re like me, only having occasionally fired one, it’s going to take me three, and maybe if I’m in a panic mode, take me a hell of a lot longer to change the magazine. So it’s time.
And even if we could have only saved, you know, two children up there, is that worth it for what is? And I ask the reverse question. Why do you need a magazine with 30 shells or 30 bullets in it as opposed to 10 bullets to protect yourself?
LAWS PREVENTING CRIMINAL USE
F&S: You touched on this subject, so I’m going to go right to reader James Taufmann, who is from Aurora, Colo., and pointed out he had a mass shooting in his town, as we all know. And he asked, “If the proposed changes that you’re advocating—banning AR-style rifles, limiting magazines to 10 rounds, tightening background checks, improving mental health services—if all that had been in effect a year prior to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, do you think those new laws would have prevented the massacre?”
V.P. BIDEN: No, but it would have saved lives, even if it was only one. We can’t say how many we’d save. Would it have saved one? Would it have saved three? Would it have saved 10? I don’t know. But it would have saved lives.
And when you’re talking about the relationship between saving some beautiful 6-year-old’s life, even if it’s only one, versus the ability of someone to have 30 rounds versus 10, how does that affect their right to either hunt or their right to protect themselves?
F&S: Well, I have a question here that touches on that issue a little bit. A lot of our readers, frankly, are concerned that any new regulations are only going to impact law-abiding gun owners and not criminals who are going to break laws. And so let me read you this question from Mike Boville from Chicago, Ill. “I’m a hunter and gun owner who lives in Chicago, which has among the most restrictive gun laws in the country. For me to legally own firearms is an expensive and time-consuming process, yet gun crimes are among the highest in the nation, and this January was the deadliest month in a decade. Based on the volume of gun violence that takes place in Chicago, where an assault weapon ban is already in place, multiple state background checks and permits are required, and the limit on magazine capacity already exists, how can you justify applying these same policies to the rest of the U.S. when they’re failing here?”
V.P. BIDEN: Well, look, here’s the deal. Let’s make it clear that…the President doesn’t think that merely dealing with limits on the number of bullets in a magazine or limiting assault weapons—eliminating, quote, what is being characterized by the Feinstein amendment as an assault weapon—or the background checks does everything. We’ve also proposed a federal gun trafficking statute. We have proposed the ability for a background check to increase the field that would be disqualified, including people potentially with certain additional mental illnesses, people who are fugitives who have not crossed state lines, but they are fugitives. And also by making sure that the background check system, every record that legally prohibits someone from being able to own a gun under the law, and constitutionally, legally prohibits, is in the NICS system.
And right now there are probably several million of those people who aren’t in the NICS system for multiple reasons. And the reasons relate to states that have not either had the physical wherewithal on their mind, the money to transfer them, they haven’t had the computer systems that are able to collate them all. And so that’s why we are proposing that we give incentives to states to be able to make sure all those records, all those records go into a single record.
But most of it is, most of the guns found at a crime scene are guns that have been stolen or missing. That’s why we think there should be a requirement to report a stolen weapon immediately, or within a certain time period, or a lost weapon, a requirement to report it. And so there’s no one answer. We also believe we should be looking into—which we are—we should have more studies on the impact of violent videos, the impact of violence, exposure to our children to violent films on their behavior. There’s no hard study yet, so we’re calling for that.
Thirdly, we think that it’s important that we be able to gather information on gun safety to be able to do legitimate studies. And so, for example, the idea that the Centers for Disease Control can’t keep data on guns, it’s a little bit like it used to be [when] automobile manufacturers argued that the National Highway Safety Council back in the late ’60s and early ’70s couldn’t keep records on fatalities or injuries. Then we found out, once they started to keep them, that 90 percent of the people, or whatever the exact number was, who were killed behind the steering wheel were impaled on the steering column. So guess what. There’s an answer. Spend more money and build a steering column that is more collapsible.
They found out that people weren’t getting killed by being thrown through a windshield on the passenger side, they were being killed by getting fractured skulls on the crossbar. So that’s why a seat harness, and they didn’t want to do that. That cost more money. But now we have the safest automobiles we’ve had in our history and fewer fatalities per capita than we did before.
F&S: I’d like to ask about the proposed universal background checks. That’s something else that a lot of readers were concerned about. Here’s a question from William Myers of Fairmont, W.Va., that summarizes a lot of the questions we got. “What provisions to a universal background check system would prohibit that check from being used to create a universal firearms owners list—in fact, a registry?”
V.P. BIDEN: Because it’s that way now. The system that exists right now is not able to be used for that purpose. There’s no mechanism to use it for that purpose. For example, when you purchase a gun, the serial number of that gun doesn’t go down to the NICS. So it is prohibited now to be used for that purpose. And there is no evidence in the time it’s been in place that it has been used for that purpose at all. And so expanding the number of people who would be disqualified would in no way suggest that that would lead to a national registry.
F&S: I don’t think the question is about expanding the number of people who would be disqualified. It’s more a question of how to implement background checks on sales between individuals.
V.P. BIDEN: Oh, I got it. I got it. The exact same way. It would be the exact same way. So, you know, it would cost a few bucks, but what happens is a sale between individuals, what you do is you go down to a licensed gun dealer. I’m going to sell you the gun, or you’re going to sell me. So, “I want to sell my 12-gauge to Biden.”
O.K., we’re going to run a check on Biden, just like if I was purchasing from that store. The only cost you would incur would be the cost to—that it costs the licensed gun dealer to run the check. And so it’s inconvenient.
But guess what. Ask it another way. Why should we believe that you know if…you’re selling to someone [who] is not a felon? How do know you’re not selling to someone who’s been adjudicated mentally incompetent to own a weapon? I mean, that’s the reason. It’s an inconvenience. It’s an inconvenience to stop for street lights. But it’s for the public’s safety.
F&S: One of the questions we had is, how would this law be enforceable? Would it be one of those laws that is widely ignored? How are we going to enforce if I want to sell it to you in my house, to my neighbor? I’m breaking the law, if that is the law, but I really—
V.P. BIDEN: You know, it is hard to do. But let’s assume that that gun ended up at a crime scene. What you can do now is that serial number goes back to—right now you can go to the manufacturer, the manufacturer tells you, traces it, what dealer did he sell it to? The dealer goes through because there is this background check and says, “Well, I sold it to so-and-so, and he sold it to you.”
And I come to you and say, “Did you leave that gun at the scene of the crime?” “Hell, no. I sold it to Charlie Shmedlap.” “You did? Well, then, you violated the law. You didn’t get a background check. You’re required to do that. Or maybe you did it.”
F&S: Well, I think that’s where the concern comes from.
V.P. BIDEN: Well, it exists now.
F&S: About the universal list of gun owners.
V.P. BIDEN: But guess what. It’s there now. That’s the law right now. What’s the difference between you selling a gun and a gun dealer selling a gun if the whole purpose is—and everyone agrees, and even the NRA used to agree—that we should keep guns out of the hands of people who are criminals, convicted felons, people who are a flight risk. Why did we all agree before that’s a good thing, to not have bad guys be able to buy guns, even though they can go get them somewhere else? They can get them on the black market.
F&S: Well the concern more is that ability to do what you just described, basically track. So if for instance—
V.P. BIDEN: Well, it exists now. Just so you know—
F&S: But in the NICS system, you said, it’s illegal, and you can’t—
V.P. BIDEN: No, the NICS system is different. This is complicated, so make sure I’ve got this right. In the NICS system, all that comes up is you’re disqualified. It doesn’t say why. It doesn’t say you’re disqualified from purchasing because you have been adjudicated in a court of law that you are mentally not competent to own a weapon. It doesn’t say you’re denied the ability to own a gun because you’re a convicted felon. It doesn’t say because you are a fugitive from justice. It just says you’re denied. And it doesn’t list what type of weapon you tried to buy. And if you are cleared, it doesn’t list what weapon you buy.
But here’s what happens. The gun dealer is required to keep a record to say that “I sold this Beretta 12-gauge to John Doe. And the serial number of the weapon I sold him is 12345796.” And that goes in and has to be kept for 20 years by the guy who sold the weapon. It has to be kept in a file.
So what happens now is, they’re trying to solve a murder, trying to solve a crime. The gun is found. They look at the serial number. They can then trace that to the manufacturer. The manufacturer [is] required to keep a record [of] which gun dealer they sold that to. You then go to the gun dealer—if the police want to do all this work—go to the gun dealer and go through the paper list, find the number—it was sold to John Doe. O.K., that’s the last time it was sold.
They go to John Doe. “John Doe, you’re under arrest. Your gun was found at the scene.” “No, I didn’t—not me. I didn’t do that.” “Well, how did your gun get there? You didn’t report it lost. You didn’t report it stolen. So what did you do?” “Well, I sold it.” “Who’d you sell it to?” “I don’t know who I sold it to.” Huh. You can’t do that anymore, if we win, if this—if we change the universal—you’d be just like the gun dealer.
And you say, “I sold it to Charlie Shmedlap.” “Well, did you get a check? Did you check on Charlie?” There’s no record you checked on Charlie, because they can check whether you checked on Charlie.
And if it’s estimated 40 percent of all gun sales are sold other than through a licensed dealer in a physical facility they’re in, then if it—let me put it another way. If it makes sense at all to keep guns out of the hands of felons, doesn’t it make sense to keep guns out of the hands of all felons if you’re able to do that without a serious disruption of anybody’s life except a felon? And my answer to that is, absolutely it does.
F&S: A lot of people have talked about the proposal of having armed police officers in schools. Why isn’t this a bigger part of the administration’s proposals?
V.P. BIDEN: Well, it is. Look, I’m the guy that wrote the crime bill, the so-called Biden Crime—put 100,000 cops on the street, and it included what they call school resource officers before the Republicans cut back on the crime bill and cut out the new cops. And what was designed was sworn officers—not rent-a-cops, not the local janitor, not the principal or the teacher. If you have someone who is a sworn officer in a school, what we found out was, it was the same way community policing worked.
So what happened was that, just like community policing, the reason crime went down, all crime, is because if you get to know the cop on your block, you’re more inclined to say, “Hey, Charlie, I’ve got to talk to you. You know, there’s a drug dealer that’s been going down outside my house here for the last five days.” But you know, if you don’t know the cop, we know from experience, people are afraid to pick up the phone and say, “I’m Mary Smith. There’s a drug dealer going outside my house.”
What we found out with school resource officers is when they were in the hallway, they were in the gym, they were hanging around, kids getting to know them. So kids are much more comfortable walking up to the cop and saying, “Hey, John, I didn’t want to say anything, but—don’t rat me out here, but in locker No. 17, when I opened my locker I saw the butt of a gun hanging out of the locker.” Or, “There’s going to be a drug deal going down in the gym,” or whatever. It worked. It made sense.
Now, if you had an armed police officer, or an unarmed police officer, in a school, would that help prevent the thing that happened in Sandy Hook, or wherever else? You know, actually, they have armed police down on the campus of Virginia Tech. Would that have helped [at Sandy Hook]? Theoretically it could help.
What we’re proposing is 1,000 new school resource officers to show best practices that we help. Just like in the COPS bill, where if a community applies, if a mayor or governor applies for more cops and they meet the need, the federal government will come up with X percent of the cost of that salary for the cop for the next five years. The same way, it would work the same way.
We’ve talked to hundreds and hundreds of these principals and teachers and school boards and some, they say, “Look, we would rather have a school resource officer that was a psychologist on our staff to be able to find these kids earlier and be able to get them mental help. We’d rather have a counselor on our staff. We think that would have more impact on behavior.”
So what we’re proposing is you’d be able to apply for the COPS grants for these thousand school resource officers, and if you conclude you want to use it for the purpose of hiring a school psychologist, you could use that money toward a school psychologist.
And the other thing we’ve done is, we’re proposing that we put together what the federal government can do well, and that is go out and take a look at all the plans, emergency plans, school districts across the country have and come up with the best practices. We’re getting calls in the Justice Department and the Education Department: “I don’t have a plan. What should my plan be?” And so we can be helpful there.
The third thing that we’re proposing to do for school safety is train, just as we do in first aid, train school personnel to identify redline behavior. There are certain things that pop up that are really red flags that a child has a serious emotional problem, a serious problem.
That teacher could then either contact the parent or contact the school psychologist and try to get some help for that kid so you don’t end up with these young people—who are a rarity, but when they occur, it’s a tragedy—who act out in ways with extreme violence, mass killings and the like.
F&S: We had a lot of questions about mental health and keeping mentally ill people from getting guns. Reader Tim Walsh asked, “Many of your proposals are very specific, especially when it comes to guns. But some of the mental health ones, as far as adding them to the background checks, are vague. What are your suggestions for keeping the mentally ill from obtaining firearms without violating doctor-patient privilege?”
V.P. BIDEN: The first thing we have to do is, there are 17 states that have all these adjudications [on mental health cases] that have taken place that have only reported on average, each of them, 10 people since the system’s been in place, so obviously they’re not reporting them. So the first thing is to figure out what the problem is, and get all those records in.
The second thing is that we want to make sure that there is this balance between—most people who are mentally ill are not a threat to anybody. They’re more the victims of crime than criminals. And so the question becomes, how do you deal with someone who would clearly be a danger.
The biggest thing we can do in the mental health field is to vastly improve and make available competent mental health help that is affordable. And so one of the things we’re going to be proposing that is going to be, an ability to marry two things together to vastly increase mental health capabilities that are affordable in communities.
One is, there is a law that was passed in ’08 called the Mental Health Parity Act, meaning that your insurance company has to cover you if you go to see a psychiatrist.
That is coupled with the idea of the Affordable Care Act now, which is going to vastly increase by hundreds of thousands of people who can now afford mental health care. And part of this is giving parents tools to deal with, or society tools to deal with, people who need mental health care before they go off the rails.
But the hard part here is, we’ve got to make sure that we eliminate the stigma of seeking mental health assistance, especially where you and I grew up in Scranton, man, tough guys don’t go to psychiatrists, man. You tough it out.
For example, we’ve got an awful lot of guys coming back from the military who have unseen wounds. You know, posttraumatic stress, traumatic brain injury. And part of the thing we’re trying to do is encourage them to seek mental help.
We have 54—50,400—I ask for it every day, they put the exact number of troops wounded in Afghanistan and troops dead in Afghanistan and Iraq—50,474 as of this morning. Well, they’re the seen wounds. There are a lot of unseen wounds.
The generic point I want to make is, the vast majority of our people are coming back from war completely mentally fit and capable, the most qualified people we have in the country. But one of the things we’re trying to do is make sure that we break this stigma that seeking help, mental help, is somehow unmanly or somehow inappropriate.