Connecticut got gun control: should the NRA be worried?

As you may have heard, Connecticut Thursday passed what has been billed as the nation’s strictest gun control bill. According to the AP, “the new legislation would add more than 100 firearms to the state’s assault weapons ban and create what officials have called the nation’s first dangerous weapon offender registry.” I haven’t taken the time to research whether this truly represents the strictest gun control bill in any state, but it’s certainly better than anything we have on a national level.

And while that’s great for Connecticut, what does it mean for the country as a whole? Anything?

One who thinks as I do might hope the legislation represents just a first step in the fight against gun violence. But given that national gun control legislation has run into some serious obstacles, it’s tempting for pessimists like me to dismiss Connecticut’s success — and the public support the bill received there — as purely a product of the horrific events at Sandy Hook late last year. It’s not crazy to suppose that the citizens of Connecticut are just more motivated to get something done than the rest of the country.

And that may be true to some extent. To be sure, it’s no accident that the country’s strongest legislation was passed in Connecticut. But in all fairness to the American public, I refuse to believe that the emotional impact of the shooting withered up and died as the broadcast signals crossed state lines: a shot-up school full of children is a shot-up school full of children, whether in Newtown, Des Moines, Oakland, or Tallahassee (chas v’shalom x 4), and most every American experienced the tragedy in an intense — if not deeply-personal, right-next-door — way. And so, the logical extension of that refusal is the conclusion that legislation in Connecticut has something to contribute to the debate currently raging across the rest of the country.

Indeed, chalking up the legislation solely to local tragedy does the people of Connecticut — and the country as a whole — a disservice, and more importantly, masks the very real and unique obstacles proponents of gun control faced there. Every state is different, with its own constellation of circumstances and considerations and constituencies that will all play a role the success of local gun control initiatives. And with that caveat, I would ask you to consider the bill that passed in Connecticut, momentarily set aside the tragic events that took place there in particular, and focus on one type of factor in particular: economic.

I currently live in Connecticut, a ten-twelve minute walk from law school, on a street called Winchester Avenue. I should have recognized that name when I read my address for the first time — or better, when I was welcomed to New Haven by the sound of about a dozen gun shots* — but it wasn’t until a few months ago that I realized the dilapidated old building at the end of my block (literally, right down the block) is the old Winchester Repeating Arms Company factory. I was familiar with the Winchester “brand” from its limited use in the Civil War and its adoption by Teddy Roosevelt — it just hadn’t occurred to me that the gun manufacturer bore (pun intended) any relationship to the street I currently call home.

*By the time my roommate called in to report what we’d heard, a police car was already racing by our window; one cop spent the next hour combing the ground with a flashlight right across the street, looking for bullet casings. This was our first week in New Haven.

And it’s not just New Haven. Connecticut as a whole has long been a center of firearm manufacturing activity. That fact also came up in constitutional law, when we read the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 because it said that bringing guns into a school zone was insufficiently “economic” or “commercial” to qualify for regulation under the commerce clause. United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995). We also learned of Congress’ subsequent pseudo-gimmicky attempt to rewrite legislation such that firearms must have “moved in or otherwise affect[ed] interstate commerce” in order to be regulated. In this context, someone mentioned that such a legislative fix might not be very helpful in a gun-manufacturing state like Connecticut, because guns there may not have actually “moved in … interstate commerce” prior to use.

Indeed, Connecticut remains an important home to arms manufacturers to this day. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation — headquarted, almost unbelievably, in Newtown, CT — “gun manufacturers in Connecticut account for 2,899 jobs — 7,340 including related businesses, such as suppliers — and have a $1.7 billion economic impact.” According to the organization’s Firearms and Ammunition Industry Economic Impact Report 2012, CT firearm manufacturers enjoy the highest wages and benefits of such workers in the nation, at $71,123* a year. One could imagine all that money supporting a substantial local constituency that could easily mobilize in support of its economic self-interest.

*The next-closest state is New Hampshire, where the average worker makes over $10,000 less ($60,584).

Actually, one doesn’t have to imagine it. Articles about the Connecticut legislation include statements from nearly every gun manufacturer in the state insisting their products are safe for everyday use. My favorite protest came at the end of the New York Times’ coverage:

Mark Malkowski, the 34-year-old founder of Stag Arms, said he grew up in New Britain, where the company is based, and had never before considered leaving the state. But he said he would consider it now.

“If our product is so bad, so dangerous, why would the state of Connecticut want us to produce it here, create jobs here, manufacture it here and ship it to all the other states?” he said.

Perhaps, Malkowski, it is worth re-examining your premise. Also, might I suggest Canada?

On a national level — just like in Connecticut — the primary obstacle to gun control legislation isn’t Constitutional (“I’m not a sixth grader,” Senator Cruz), or moral, or even cultural; it’s economic. Sure, the NRA makes Constitutional, moral, cultural, and other arguments against sensible gun reforms, but it’s less about what the organization says — unless you’re looking for a good laugh — and more about why they say it: the organization is basically a front for economically self-interested gun manufacturers. Here’s the Atlantic’s take, and here are some more enlightening statistics from Factcheck.org:

[Gun] manufacturers are major contributors to the NRA. Smith & Wesson in May became a member of the NRA’s “Golden Ring of Freedom,” which is for donors who contribute more than $1 million. In 2008, the Beretta Group — another “Golden Ring of Freedom” member — exceeded $2 million in donations.

In one case, the gun manufacturer Sturm, Ruger & Company tied its donations directly to gun sales in a program called the “Million Gun Challenge.” According to an April 2012 press release, Ruger promised to donate $1 to the NRA-ILA for each gun it sold over the course of a year, from May 2011 to May 2012. The “Million Gun Challenge” exceeded its goal and raised $1.25 million.

And that’s why Connecticut’s successful gun control bill gives me hope that something might still come of the Newtown tragedy and the national conversation it provoked. Sure, the fact that Sandy Hook was in-state “helped”, but that hardly made the legislation’s passage a sure thing. A lot of effort and hard work — including some on the part of a good friend and classmate — went into making this important and historic first step possible.

And it will take that same effort and hard work to achieve those same results in the next 49 — or better, in one giant leap.

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