Asking Paul Helmke: What drives the debate over gun control?

People talk about gun control, but do they know what they're talking about? Paul Helmke, former president of the Brady Campaign, shares his thoughts about firearm regulation and the Second Amendment. Photo: Associated Press

FLORIDA, January 11, 2013 — Almost everyone seems to be talking about gun control these days, but do they know what they’re talking about? 

From 2006 to 2011, Paul Helmke was the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. He is also a former three-term mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Throughout his career as a public servant, he has focused on the issues behind firearm use.

Today, he teaches at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and directs a program there geared toward leadership development.  

In this first part of our discussion, Helmke shares his views about the motivations that stir the country’s debate over gun control, why political support for control policies has waned, what the most important ramifications of District of Columbia v. Heller are, and whether or not the Second Amendment can be construed as allowing for the private ownership of all firearms.  


Joseph F. Cotto: America’s debate over gun control goes back for generations. Would you say it is rooted in cultural differences, or, as some have suggested, economic concerns?

Mayor Paul Helmke: There are many reasons for the continuing debate over gun control. Those who live in urban areas often have very different but understandable perspectives on gun ownership and gun violence than do those in rural areas. Those whose family or friends have been directly impacted by gun violence, and those who own and carry guns, generally look at the issue differently from each other and from those for whom this is a theoretical, not personal, issue. 

Many individuals who have been trained and used guns in the military or in law enforcement often favor more restrictions than those who have not had to deal with the daily possibility of real gun battles. Those who make money off of gun sales obviously have a stake in the issue. Those who are suspicious of government power have different attitudes from those who are more willing to accept some trade-offs for living in communities. 

Seeing or defining the issue primarily as one of “no guns” versus “freedom to have guns” rather than as an issue that could be subject to reasonable restrictions and compromises has helped this debate to continue for decades.

Cotto: Gun control has always been an immensely controversial issue. Over the last several years, though, political support for it has waned. In your opinion, why is that?

Helmke: Popular support for specific gun control measures has remained strong while support for the general concept of “gun control” has declined. Gun violence prevention (GVP) groups have generally avoided using the term “gun control” since the mid-1990s. Part of the consequence of the avoidance of those words, however, along with the opposition by gun rights groups to almost any restrictions, is that many now equate “gun control” with banning all or most guns rather than things like stronger background checks, limits on ammunition magazines or some military-style weaponry, stronger penalties for trafficking in illegal guns, etc. 

Many politicians, and their consultants and advisers, meanwhile, seem to have bought into the story-line that the NRA was almost solely responsible for the GOP getting control of Congress in 1994 and defeating Al Gore in 2000. This ignores the many other reasons for these election results (for example, “Hillary Health Care”, Speaker Jim Wright’s book deal, the Congressional Post Office scandal, and 40-years of one-party control of the House in the 1994 cycle). This story-line also fails to explain why Bill Clinton was re-elected so easily in 1996 after signing the Brady Bill and “assault weapons ban” (and featuring the Bradys at the 1996 Convention) and why George W. Bush was more vocal than Gore during the 2000 campaign in backing the “assault weapon ban” and trigger-locks. 

Since 2000, there have been very few, if any, election losses at almost any level that can be tied directly to support for gun control. Even large targeted spending by the NRA in swing “gun-friendly” states like Pennsylvania and Ohio in both 2008 and 2012 failed to keep those states from going to Obama. GVP groups need to do more to get their supporters in Congressional districts and states across the country to push their elected officials to support restrictions that will make it harder for dangerous people to get particularly dangerous weapons.  

When politicians hear from the NRA, but not GVP supporters, they become less likely to support gun control proposals.

Cotto: The Supreme Court’s landmark District of Columbia v. Heller decision was a major victory for proponents of gun rights. What do you believe its most important ramification is?

Mayor Helmke: The most important ramification of the Heller case should be Justice Scalia’s statement that Second Amendment rights, like other Constitutional rights, are “not unlimited” and that many restrictions on who can get guns, where guns can be taken, how guns are sold, how guns are stored, how guns are carried, and what types of guns are generally available are “presumptively lawful.” Now that a decision has been reached indicating that the Second Amendment recognizes an individual right, as opposed to just relating to a public purpose or “well regulated militia”, the next step should be to see if gun rights and gun control advocates can agree (or at least come close) on drawing the lines on the “who, where, how, and what” of the Scalia restrictions. 

Cotto: The Second Amendment is subject to a plethora of interpretations. Do you believe that it can reasonably be construed as allowing for the ownership of all firearms?

Mayor Helmke: Justice Scalia’s decision in the Heller makes it clear that some restrictions on some types of firearms are allowed by the Second Amendment. For example, we’ve had restrictions on machine guns and fully automatic weapons since 1934 and most agree that this is Constitutional. The question now is what other weapons should be treated similarly, or with some other level of restriction.

Cotto: Generally speaking, how do you perceive the Second Amendment?

Mayor Helmke: I’ve always thought it of interest that the Second Amendment is the only one to use the word “regulated”. Based on my reading of the history, I think the main intent was to make sure the states could use their militias to provide a check against a standing federal army. Since the Heller decision from June 2008 says that the Second Amendment provides a “not unlimited” individual right, that is what I recognize as the law of the land.

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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