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Politics of gun control debate stifle common-sense reforms

America's affinity for firearms is exploited by the gun lobby, which opposes every restriction.

Last week after 19 people were shot at a public gathering in Tucson, Ariz., a good friend of mine – he's British but has worked in this country for more than 30 years – asked me why America is so obsessed with guns. He pointed out the obvious facts that every other developed country in the world has far stiffer laws regulating guns and that America is by far the most violent country in the developed world.

The question shouldn't have been a surprise. Yet I found myself without a good answer – why are we so obsessed with guns?

Guns were certainly a part of my life growing up. My father was a hunter. I was trained from the age of 10 to know how to handle a rifle and a shotgun. I had my own shotgun by age 12.

As an adult in the Navy, I bought myself a handgun. It sat in a drawer for some 40 years, until I finally turned it in to the local police. Still, I am part of the gun-owning culture of America.

What is at the heart of it? Certainly part of the gun culture comes from our history.

Our country was a frontier when settled. The rifle was essential to provide meat for the table. Our Constitution's Second Amendment enshrines the right of every American to bear arms, though this right is associated with the need for a militia.

Militias have long since faded from our national purpose, but the right to bear arms has been interpreted broadly by the courts to include a range of weapons.

Somehow over the years the right to bear arms changed from a focus on the hunting rifle to a much broader focus that now includes semi-automatic pistols in all shapes and sizes and assault weapons in a frightening array.

How did this happen? Let's start with a powerful lobby.

The National Rifle Association is one of the best-organized and effective of Washington lobbying groups. Most congressmen believe that being targeted by the NRA is a sure trip into retirement.

Many of those legislators who supported the assault weapons ban passed in 1994 ended up being targets of the NRA. As a result, when the law came up for reauthorization in 2004, there were few lawmakers willing to take up the cause. The ban was allowed to expire.

The NRA has cultivated strong grass-roots support. I remember a few years ago atttending hearings of the Maine Legislature on a law to prohibit anyone with a domestic-violence protection-from- abuse order from possessing a handgun. The legislation was supported by many law enforcement groups in the state.

When I got to the hearing room, it was almost impossible to enter because of the crush of those protesting this "infringement" of their right to carry weapons.

The atmosphere was mean and confrontational. The committee acted as though it was intimidated – and who could blame them? The legislation was not passed in that Legislature, though it was passed in the next.

Our national situation is now such that legislators are reluctant to propose even the most modest of gun registration proposals. Meanwhile, the gun lobby and its allies mouth that old chestnut: "Guns don't kill, people do."

Any comparison of statistics on crime and violence finds it much reduced in countries with reasonable gun control laws. The intentional homicide rate in the United States is more than five times that of Germany. Is the average American significantly more violent than the average German? I think not.

Yet somehow we have managed to tolerate a society that is significantly more dangerous. I rank this issue right up there with the Arab-Israeli conflict in the pantheon of problems for which the solution is well-known and yet no political leader has the courage to propose it.

In most ways, we are such an open and generous people. Yet here we are with many officials loathe to even suggest change. Maybe it is a hidden DNA flaw.

Is there nothing we can agree on? How about starting with the proposal last week from Rep. Carolyn McCarthy D-N.Y., that we at least ban oversized clips for semi-automatic pistols?

Surely both parties can agree to support this common-sense step. Once this passes, we can move to reinstate the ban on assault weapons.

All of this seems so obvious. However, it will take lots of pressure on our lawmakers to make something happen here.

Here's my first salvo. What about you?