IU professor: House sit-in moves the conversation on gun control

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

The Democrat-led sit-in on the floor of the House chamber ended Thursday, hours after Republicans brought a major appropriations bill to a vote and adjourned the session. But the standoff over legislation that would expand background checks and prevent anyone on a terrorist watch list from buying a gun is unlikely to end anytime soon.

The partisanship was palpable. Democrats chanted ”No bill, no break” all night, at one point drowning out Speaker Paul Ryan. Aides restrained Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, when he tried to respond to and provoke Democrats on the floor.

Paul Helmke

Paul Helmke

But gun legislation isn’t intrinsically partisan, said Paul Helmke, former president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne and current professor of practice in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington.

“One of my concerns is that it’s turned into Republicans versus Democrats. It wasn’t always that way,” Helmke said. “President Reagan supported the Brady Bill and assault rifle ban. You used to see urban Republicans supporting measures to restrict gun purchases by dangerous people and rural Democrats supporting gun rights.”

The debate has devolved into a partisan shouting match based largely on fears, Helmke said.

“It plays on people’s fears that some bad guy is going to attack you in the middle of the night. It plays on the fear that the government or civilized society isn’t going to be around to protect you,” Helmke said. “I’m not anti-gun. If you’re in a remote area or a dangerous profession, it might make sense. But a lot of it is just playing on people’s fears.”

Fear fuels gun sales and gun sales are big business.

“Money is one of the factors in the partisan debate,” Helmke said. “People make money selling these guns. Every time people get scared that there is going to be a change in the laws, gun sales go up. And sales mean profit. People are making money off the fear and violence.”

It is no secret that money speaks in Washington. And the National Rifle Association lobby is a wealthy voice in the debate. It is not the NRA members who shape the debate in Congress, Helmke said, but the NRA leadership, who write the checks and issue the political messaging.

Public opinion polls show overwhelming support for background checks. But the legislature has failed to act, leading to the House sit-in.

“After the Sandy Hook shooting and continuing since the Orlando shooting, close to 95 percent of American people support background checks on nearly all sales of guns,” Helmke said. “Eighty-five percent of gun owners support background checks, and 75 percent of NRA members support them.

“Too many legislators are more concerned about what the NRA leadership, not membership, says about the issue because it affects money and endorsements down the road.”

Helmke acknowledges the House sit-in as a step in the right direction toward gun control measures.

“One of the most frustrating things when I was heading the Brady Campaign was how elected officials, on both sides, would do almost anything they could to avoid talking about the issue. They would focus just on the mental health or terrorism component. After a tragedy, they’d say it wasn’t the appropriate time,” Helmke said. “I’m happy to see folks in Congress taking the step to move the conversation.”

For Helmke, the debate doesn’t have to be anti-gun or anti-gun-owner, but it should be anti-violence.

“This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky dream that we are going to end all violence. These are just common-sense steps to make it harder for dangerous people to get guns,” Helmke said.

“Along with gun rights, there are gun risks, and we have to consider gun responsibilities. People ought to be able to find some middle ground that both protects the interests of those who want to have guns and acknowledges the risks and responsibilities of gun ownership.”

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