RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The debate over gun restrictions is often revived, however briefly, after tragedies like the one in Newtown. When President Obama offered his condolences to the families of those killed at Shady Hook Elementary on Friday, he added...
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.
MARTIN: The White House has yet to specify what meaningful action will actually look like. But President Obama's remark has opened a door to a national debate about gun control. Adam Winkler has written a book on the history of gun policy in America. That book is called "Gunfight." He's a law professor at UCLA and joins me from Los Angeles.
Welcome to the program.
ADAM WINKLER: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: When was the last time there was a significant bill about gun policy?
WINKLER: We have not had a significant law passed on gun policy really since the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban in the '93-'94 period. There was a relatively insignificant reform passed after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, that improved some of our mental health reporting data into the federal background check system, but it was not that significant and has a work that effectively.
MARTIN: What was insufficient about the background checks that were passed as a result of the Brady Bill?
WINKLER: The Brady Bill background check law had one major loophole. It only required federally licensed dealers to conduct a background check, but did not require you to have a license to sell a gun. As a result, anyone can go to a gun show and sell one of their guns or take out a classified ad or meet someone at a gun range and sell a gun to them without doing a background check.
MARTIN: You mentioned the assault weapons ban. As I understand it, that ban has now lapsed, correct?
WINKLER: That's right. It was in effect from 1994 to 2004 and then it was not reauthorized.
MARTIN: Why was that?
WINKLER: There was very little political will to reauthorize it under the Bush administration. Republicans were in control of Congress and in the White House, and it's not a favorite policy among the Republican Party circles to ban any kind of weapons, much less assault weapons.
MARTIN: And when you say there's no political will, why has this not been an issue that's gotten any traction?
WINKLER: In part, the story is that the gun lobby, the NRA, has made Democrats fear that if they support gun control laws they're going to be voted out of office. The gun control movement, by contrast, is not very strong. There are a lot of single issue voters on the pro-gun side, and not a lot of single issue voters on the gun control side. As a result, come Election Day, there's a lot of people who are basing their votes on guns but only in the pro-gun category.
MARTIN: Where is the common ground, if there is any? I mean this is obviously a very polarizing issue, are there places that both sides can compromise on?
WINKLER: I think improving our background check system is an area where gun owners and gun control advocates can all agree we can do more.
MARTIN: Have you heard that from gun rights activists, that there could be some ground they might cede when it comes to background checks, when it comes to closing the gun show loophole?
WINKLER: I think a lot of gun owners do want to see us do more because they're fearful that the use kinds of events, where a mentally ill or criminal people get their hands on guns, do more to hurt the gun rights cause than anything. The vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding citizens who believe in law and order. They don't want criminals to be getting guns.
MARTIN: Adam Winkler's book is called "Gunfight: The Battle Over The Right to Bear Arms in America." Adam, thanks so much for talking with us.
WINKLER: Thank you for having me.
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MARTIN: And you're listening to NPR News.
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