MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The National Rifle Association was highly critical of the administration after its meeting yesterday with Vice President Biden. In a statement afterward, the NRA said the meeting was part of an agenda to attack the Second Amendment. The group added: We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen.
I'm joined now by NRA President David Keene. Mr. Keene, welcome to the program.
DAVID KEENE: It's a pleasure to be with you.
BLOCK: I know the NRA has said, we should put armed guards in schools; we need to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. But apart from those measures, I wonder if you can accept any limitations at all on the sale of guns and ammunition; starting, for example, with universal background checks for gun purchases, including private sales at gun shows.
KEENE: Yeah, I've said earlier that the problem with that - and I'd like to see the administration's proposal because it's very, very difficult to do. Relatively few guns, in spite of some wild numbers that you see thrown around, are sold privately. Let me explain what a private sale is. If you purchase a gun either from a dealer or at a gun show, or anywhere else from a federally licensed firearms dealer, you have to go - undergo a background check.
KEENE: Now, if you and I - if I sell you my shotgun personally, I don't need a license anymore than I need a dealer's license to sell you my car. The problem was trying to check those people. You can do it at a gun show. You can't legally now because I can't check you - because I can't legally access, as an individual, that system. That has to be done by a dealer.
BLOCK: If you saw a proposal that satisfied you, in some way; that yes, they figured out a way that they could facilitate background checks through dealers, through the ATF for private sales - theoretically - would you support that?
KEENE: We'd have to see it because one of the things that we are adamantly opposed to and presently, something which is prohibited, is the keeping of a national registry of firearms.
BLOCK: And why are you so opposed to that? Why shouldn't there be a registry of people who own firearms?
KEENE: A registry of people who own firearms - citizens who've broken no law, who are not prohibited from owning firearms - would be very dangerous because it can easily result in confiscation of those firearms. For example, both Sen. Feinstein of California, and Gov. Cuomo of New York, have suggested what they call a forced buyback. In other words, if they know that you have a gun - and this has happened in other countries - you can be required to turn it in and be sold, you know, for a hundred bucks or 50 bucks, back to the government.
You know, the right to own a firearm privately, in this country, is guaranteed by the Constitution. And making it difficult, or putting conditions on it other than those that are legitimate under constitutional interpretation, is very difficult.
BLOCK: Let me ask you about another idea ...
BLOCK: ...that's under consideration by Vice President Biden; which would be to restrict the purchase of high-capacity magazines, which have been used in many of the mass shootings that we've seen recently. Why is that not a good idea?
KEENE: Well, there are a couple of reasons. It sounds like a good idea. The fact is that it doesn't make very much difference. It takes anybody who's familiar with any of these firearms maybe a second to change the magazine. They're also very difficult to restrict. There are millions of them out there. They cost virtually nothing to produce. There are no serial numbers on them.
And the real question, in our minds, is people who shouldn't have firearms - and this includes, frankly, virtually all of the people who've been involved in these mass shootings. Virtually all of them have displayed to others - who have either ignored the signs or just let it go - have shown signs of being potentially, dangerously, violently mentally ill. Those people shouldn't have any firearms.
BLOCK: Let me ask you this: The man who's charged with the mass shooting at the Aurora, Colo., movie theater had built up an arsenal totaling 6,000 rounds in just four months. He also had a high-capacity drum magazine that could hold 100 rounds. And he could get those with no background check. There's no limit on purchases, no reporting requirement. Do you see anything wrong with that? Should anyone be allowed to amass that kind of arsenal?
KEENE: That's not - for people who are in sport shooting, that's not a particularly significant quantity of ammunition.
BLOCK: That's not much, you're saying.
KEENE: That's not much. And what's the difference between the 20 shells or so that you might use to shoot someone, and the hundred or 3,000, or whatever he could - you can't carry those around. You buy those, particularly if you're going to the range a lot because you can use up a lot of ammunition in sport and competitive shooting.
Now, interestingly, this guy that was in the Aurora shooting - his nature, and the fact that there might be something wrong with him, was spotted by a lot of people. The only person who acted on that was a firearms dealer who looked at him and said, I think this guy's crazy, and I'm not going to sell him a gun.
BLOCK: One other provision or idea that's out there, that I just wanted to run by you - why should there not be a background check for ammunition sales? If you do background checks for gun sales, why not for ammunition?
KEENE: Well, it's very different because gun sales have serial numbers. Gun sales are checked. They're sold at gun dealers. You know, it's onerous, on the one hand. That would be very expensive, in terms of bureaucracy, on the other - and would accomplish nothing, or next to nothing. So you know, when you talk about regulations, and when you talk about laws to get citizens to do one thing or the other, you have to ask yourself, what would that accomplish? Would that prevent this kind of shooting? And there's no reason to believe that it would, so why would you do it?
BLOCK: You know, a lot of folks on the other side, though, Mr. Keene, would say, you can't say that it won't accomplish anything because we haven't really tried before. And when the assault weapons ban was in effect, it was watered down to the point of being ineffective.
KEENE: Well, the fact of the matter is that unless you're talking about the confiscation and elimination of firearms, none of these things are going to make much difference. They haven't made much of a difference elsewhere, and they aren't going to make much difference here. So when you combine the fact that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of people who are not breaking any laws to own and enjoy firearms in this country, for self-protection; to collect them; to use them in sport shooting, for hunting and the like; when you combine all those things, there is no effective reason for doing what these folks suggest.
Most of these are what I called feel-good laws. I mean, if you're a member of Congress, you could go back and say, you know, I banned assault weapons. I banned magazines. I made them register this or register that. But in the final analysis, the question then is, and is that going to prevent the kind of violence we're trying to prevent? And the answer to that demonstrably, historically and empirically, is no, it doesn't.
BLOCK: Mr. Keene, let me ask you this...
BLOCK: The homicide rate by firearms in this country is nearly 20 times higher than other wealthy countries. We have the highest gun ownership rate in the world, and we have the most permissive gun laws in - these same countries. Why are we so out of whack? And are you saying there's no connection between the number of guns, and the number of deaths by guns?
KEENE: Well, interestingly, the homicide rate in this country, over the last couple of decades, has been cut in half while the number of guns has virtually doubled. So in that sense, it's difficult to make a statistical correlation between the two...
BLOCK: But we're still very skewed, when you look at the...
KEENE: Just a second now - if you go to some of these other countries, you know, they'll say, well, there are not as many people killed with guns because there aren't guns available. That doesn't mean there aren't as many people killed. They may be killed for other reasons. Just as an example, if we look at statistics here in this country, in 2010 - which was the last year that the FBI has the published figures for - more people were beaten to death than were killed by all long arms, including so-called assault rifles, in total.
We believe that the problem is not the firearm. It's not the AR-15. It's not the pistol. Or in the case of a killer with a knife, it's not the knife. It's the person wielding the firearm, or wielding the knife. And what you have to do is punish those who would misuse these inanimate objects.
BLOCK: I want to go back to the statistics you were talking about, in terms of long arms and beatings. Mr. Keene, I'm looking at those same numbers, I think, from the FBI. And for 2011, 728 murder victims due to beatings; 8,583 from firearms, including long arms, handguns and others.
KEENE: That's including....
BLOCK: More than 10 times.
KEENE: That number includes all people that were killed by firearms...
KEENE: ...including pistols. Most were killed by pistols. It includes justifiable homicides. It includes self-defense. So that's a raw number. When it's broken down - and I was talking about long arms, which is what the administration is talking about banning - you find out that it's - I don't know the exact number, but it's 236, or something of that sort.
BLOCK: David Keene is president of the National Rifle Association. Mr. Keene, thank you.
KEENE: My pleasure, anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.