Sustained Outrage

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin is certainly getting a lot of media attention for what has been depicted as close to an about-face on gun safety laws, announced in the wake of the slaughter of 20 6- and 7-year-old kids at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Sen. Manchin’s statement that the nation needs to revisit limits on firearms was all over the news (see here, here and here, just for example).

In an editorial this morning, the Charleston Gazette praised Sen. Manchin:

Surprisingly, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. — a longtime supporter of the right to bear arms — called for gun reform Monday morning. On the “Morning Joe” television show, he said it’s “time to move beyond rhetoric” about guns. He implied that he may vote to restore the ban on military-style assault weapons of the sort used in the Connecticut massacre.

“I don’t know anyone in the sporting or hunting arena who goes out with an assault rifle,” Manchin said. “I don’t know anybody who needs 30 rounds in a clip to go hunting.”

The former West Virginia governor said the Connecticut massacre of school tots has changed America’s mood.

“Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered,” he said. “It’s never happened in America that I can recall, seeing this carnage.” He added that law-abiding gun owners and hunters “understand this has changed where we go from here.”

Bravo. We’re proud of Manchin. We hope this reform spirit snowballs, and America finally attempts to protect people from the world’s worst level of gun murders.

But what remains unclear is exactly what sort of new gun safety measures Sen. Manchin would support, let alone push for in the Senate.  There are plenty of measures already pending, proposed by a variety of members of Congress. This helpful Congressional Research Service report provides an overview of those bills. None of them have Sen. Manchin’s name on them as a co-sponsor.

In fact, Sen. Manchin has actually put his name mostly on pro-gun measures backed by the National Rifle Association, a group that gets huge amounts of its funding not from the hunters whose rights Sen. Manchin proclaims to defend — but from the companies that make and sell firearms (see here and here).

For example, while Sen. Manchin believes that states should have the absolute right to regulate their own coal industries, he doesn’t want states to be able to set their own limits on guns, instead backing NRA-pushed legislation to force states to recognize gun permits issued by other states. Sen. Manchin is also co-sponsoring legislation to block the U.S. Department of Justice from tracking and cataloguing the purchases of multiple rifles and shotguns.

Sen. Manchin has been talking quite a bit this week about assault weapons:

Assault rifles were designed for the military, multiple-round clips.  I never had more than three rounds in my gun. I don’t know any people who go hunting with assault rifles with 30 rounds in their guns.

Media coverage yesterday and today focused on whether Sen. Manchin would support legislation that California Democrat Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce next year to ban assault weapons. If Sen. Manchin were truly concerned about assault weapons, he could have already signed on to S. 32, legislation that would ban large-capacity ammunition feeding devices.

It’s worth noting here that, while Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said yesterday that it’s “unacceptable” that the assault weapons ban hasn’t been renewed, Sen. Rockefeller also did not choose to co-sponsor S. 32 regarding large-capacity clips. Back in 2004, Sen. Rockefeller did vote to add continuation of the assault weapons ban to a separate bill, a gun lobby-based measure to protect weapons makers from lawsuits. Once the amendment was added, the overall bill was defeated in the Senate that March. That year, there were at least four bills introduced to continue the assault weapons ban, and I don’t see Sen. Rockefeller’s name listed as a sponsor for any of them. Unlike Sen. Manchin, though, Sen. Rockefeller is being perfectly clear that he wants to again ban assault weapons, saying in a Monday statement:

We need to pass a bill that will again prohibit such weapons.



From left, Jean Bradley, Steven Turchetta, 9, Jean’s son Matthew Bradley, 9, Ashton Baltes, 10, and his mother Elonda Baltes pay their respects at a memorial for shooting victims near Sandy Hook Elementary School, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012 in Newtown, Conn.  The three friends play on the same hockey team, and wanted to visit the memorial Saturday after having played a hockey game nearby. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

And of course, as governor of West Virginia, Sen. Manchin signed into law our state’s version of the NRA-backed “Stand Your Ground“, the sweeping self-defense law which removes a person’s duty to retreat before using deadly force against another anywhere the person has a legal right to be, as long as the person reasonably believed he or someone else faced imminent death or great bodily harm.

In various interviews and media appearances yesterday, Sen. Manchin also seemed to not grasp some basic facts about gun violence in our country and our state.

First, the senator’s talking points included various versions of this statement:

Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered. It’s never happened in America that I can recall, seeing this carnage.

If Sen. Manchin really thinks our nation’s children haven’t been slaughtered by gun violence, he hasn’t been paying attention.

It’s true that violent deaths at schools accounted for less than 1 percent of the homicides and suicides among children ages 5-18, as one local reporter has pointed out. But the CDC has also reported this depressing bit of information: Homicide is the second leading cause of death among youths aged 5–18 years in the United States. And, this report from the Children’s Defense Fund provides horrifying statistics about kids and gun violence:

 — In 2008, 2,947 children and teens died from guns in the United States and 2,793 died in 2009 for a total of 5,740—one child or teen every three hours, eight every day, 55 every week for two years.

— The number of preschoolers killed by guns in 2008 (88) and in 2009 (85) was nearly double the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 2008 (41) and 2009 (48).

— The most recent analysis of data from 23 industrialized nations shows that 87 percent of the children under age 15 killed by guns in these nations lived in the United States. The gun homicide rate in the United States for teens and young adults ages 15 to 24 was 42.7 times higher than the combined rate for the other nations.

In this Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 file photo provided by the Newtown Bee, Connecticut State Police lead a line of children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. after a shooting at the school.  (AP Photo/Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks).

As President Obama said on Friday during his first public remarks on the Newtown massacre:

Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown or a shopping mall in Oregon or a temple in Wisconsin or a movie theater in Aurora (Colorado) or a street corner in Chicago, these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods and these children are our children.

Sen. Manchin has also couched his discussion of gun control in terms of what he calls West Virginia’s “family values,” which he describes as a culture where hunting and gun safety are handed down from generation to generation. Sen. Manchin doesn’t mention — let alone offer any proposals to address — what is at the heart of West Virginia’s gun violence problem: Family violence where men murder their wives and girlfriends, often with guns.

In the official statement from his office yesterday, Sen. Manchin used one of his favorite lines, saying, “Everything should be on the table”:

This awful massacre of our youngest children has changed us, and everything should be on the table. We need to move beyond dialogue – we need to take a sensible, reasonable approach to the issue of mass violence. I ask all of my colleagues to sit down with a seriousness of purpose to address the causes of these tragic crimes, including mental health treatment, military-style assault weapons and high capacity magazines, and our culture, which seems to glorify violence more than ever in our video games and movies.

Sen. Manchin didn’t mention political ads in that statement, so it’s worth remembering that he won his Senate seat in part by glorifying the use of guns to solve political disagreements with this advertisement about the cap-and-trade bill:

After a January 2011 mass shooting in Arizona that killed six people and wounded a dozen (the dead included a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl; the wounded a member of Congress), Sen. Manchin said he might not use that “Dead Aim” ad again. Of course, Sen. Manchin then used another gun ad in his re-election campaign this year:

Now, when he was pressed yesterday about his original gun ad, Sen. Manchin said this:

Let me just say what we did at that time and the way we used it was in the most responsible manner. I didn’t do it to do anything but show you can use guns in a responsible manner. I’m a proud gun owner and I used it in a responsible manner. I didn’t do it to glorify anything.

Writing for The Washington Post’s WonkBlog, Ezra Klein wisely quoted Mark Kleiman, a crime specialist at UCLA:

Figuring out how to prevent the next gun massacre (or specifically the next gun massacre at a school) is a classic case of solving the wrong problem.  The right problem is gun homicide generally, or homicide generally.

Klein continued:

… Gun violence isn’t so rare. According to the Brady Campaign, in the United States, more than 12,000 die after being shot in a homicide each year. More than 18,000 kill themselves with a gun. Almost 600 are killed in a gun accident. More than 66,000 are injured by guns. These traumas sadden, but they’re so common that they no longer shock.

But they get to the truth of this issue: While we may not be able to stop every gun death, there are lots and lots and lots of gun deaths to stop. And if a deadly mass shooting like the one in Newtown is specific and idiosyncratic in ways that make it very difficult to confront through policy, the average gun death follows a much clearer pattern.

The fatalism about gun control tends to begin with a simple statistic: There are 300 million or so guns in the United States. Perhaps it would be better to live in a world where that number was much closer to zero. But since we don’t live in that world, the thinking goes, there’s nothing much that can be done.

Kleiman doesn’t buy that fatalism. Of those guns, 100 million are handguns, and handguns are used in the bulk of killings (though not in the Newtown massacre).

Moreover, Kleiman says, the evidence suggests that these old guns aren’t huge contributors to gun crime. “The fact that we have all these guns in inventory doesn’t seem to matter much because crime guns are young,” he says. “Bad guys like new toys fresh out of the box. Now, maybe they’d adapt if you made those guns hard to get. But your local branch of the Crips isn’t arming itself out of the proceeds of burglaries. They’re buying new Glocks.”

That’s where the private-sales loophole comes in: It’s depressingly easy for a gang member to drive to a gun show outside the city limits and bring back dozens of Glocks with few questions asked. That’s something we can, and should, stop.

As for the kind of guns you can buy, a tougher assault weapons ban, with fewer loopholes, and perhaps provisions outlawing bullets built to shatter in the body for maximum damage, would help reduce the lethality of the arms on the street.

But a close reading of Sen. Manchin’s statements yesterday might lead one to be less optimistic than some of the media coverage suggests. For example, there was this line included in Dr. Paul Nyden’s Gazette story:

“This is a dialog that needs to happen now. I am not saying there will be mammoth changes,” Manchin said.

And then there was this interesting exchange between Sen. Manchin and the conservative Breitbart News, posted on the online site (with audio):

BN: You said you would change your mind on gun control

MANCHIN: Honey, I didn’t change my mind on anything. I think everything should be open for discussion.

BN: But apparently, in one of your campaign ads, it shows you holding a gun.


BN: In the same light you’ve sort of said that it’s time to change the gun laws.

MANCHIN: I’ve never said that. Where are you getting this from?

BN: Okay, so what are you saying now these days?

MANCHIN: We’ll talk. I mean. You’re totally off base. You’re misinformed and you’re off base. You know I’ll put a statement out and

you ought to read my statement. We’ll get you a statement. I’m not gonna say a word, Okay? I’ll get you a statement.

BN: But it’s my understanding that…

MANCHIN: No it’s not. You’re totally misinformed and you’re out of touch.

BN: But do you think the gun laws should be changed.

MANCHIN: I think everything should be on the table.

BN: But do you think the gun laws should be changed?

MANCHIN: I think everything should be looked at. Everything needs to be looked at.

BN: Everything needs to be changed then?

MANCHIN: No, honey, nothing. I’m not talking to you anymore I can tell where you’re going.