Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Three areas where Biden and NRA can find common ground

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
January 11, 2013 -- Updated 1444 GMT (2244 HKT)
 John Avlon: Some common ground exists between the White House and the NRA on guns and that should be a heartening sign.
John Avlon: Some common ground exists between the White House and the NRA on guns and that should be a heartening sign.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: The NRA and the White House share common ground on gun control
  • Avlon: In the past, the NRA has backed specific plans to crack down on gun violence
  • He says polls show that most NRA members support common sense measures
  • Avlon: Obama should increase federal enforcement of existing laws through executive order

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- Joe Biden doesn't much like the NRA -- and the feeling is mutual.

But on Thursday the NRA will be coming to the White House to meet with Biden and his fast-track gun reform task force, formed after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and due to submit its recommendations by the end of the month.

There are obviously deep divisions between the two -- they are never going to agree on the vast majority of proposals, especially the assault weapons ban (despite the fact that it was once backed by Ronald Reagan) and a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips.

John Avlon
John Avlon

But there may be some surprising opportunities to find common ground, even on this most contentious issue. The NRA has backed specific plans to crack down on gun violence in the past that the president could enact through executive order, and polls of NRA members suggest there is even more unexpected common ground to be found.

For example, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System is an existing law that has been underfunded and insufficiently implemented. Updated after the Virginia Tech shootings, backed by the NRA and signed into law by President Bush, the law requires federally licensed gun dealers to check with a coordinated federal database to see whether the would-be gun buyer has any history of dangerous mental health problems -- as well as criminal record, arrest warrants, or orders of civil protection -- that would stop them from owning a firearm under existing law.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people in the span of a few hours, had been previously diagnosed as mentally ill and could have been stopped from purchasing his murder weapons if the information had been available to the background check system. But since Virginia Tech, states have made only limited progress in reporting the critical mental health information, primarily because Congress has failed to provide the necessary funding, granting just 5.3% of the total authorized amount during the Obama years. Increased screening for mental health is one of the few areas the NRA agreed should be focused on in the wake of Newtown and yet the Obama administration and Congress have failed to enforce the existing law by depriving it of funds needed for implementation.

Politics: How the NRA wields its influence

Likewise, the NRA has long championed Project Exile, a pilot program first implemented in Richmond, Virginia, which prosecuted serious local gun crimes committed by felons under federal law, putting repeat offenders in federal prisons far away from their communities. This get-tough approach,which inspired President Bush's national initiative Project Safe Neighborhoods, ended up cutting the "gun carry" rate in half and reducing the murder rate in Richmond by more than 60%. The five-year mandatory sentence for committing a crime with an illegal gun changed criminal behavior. Similar initiatives have been implemented in cities throughout the country, but the coordination has been spotty and the Obama administration has failed to follow through on the model or add innovations to it.

VA Tech survivor on gun violence meeting
Secret gun provision hidden in Obamacare
Biden task force chills gun stock rally
Giffords takes on NRA

Finally, President Obama could order the Justice Department to increase the prosecutions of people who falsify information on their gun background checks. In 2009, the FBI reported 71,000 instances of people lying on their background checks to buy guns. But the Justice Department prosecuted just 77 cases -- that's about 1/10th of 1%. A lack of follow through from the federal government is letting these gun criminals walk, and that sends a message about lack of enforcement that only encourages systematic disrespect for existing gun laws.

There's a pattern here. Before the Newtown shootings, the Obama administration had not made enforcement of existing guns laws a political or policy priority as the Clinton administration did, which got it repeatedly butting heads with the NRA in the process. This may in part be connected to a political strategy implemented by then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel in 2006, when he courted pro-gun Democrats as part of a successful effort to retake control of Congress, an experience he carried with him to his role as Obama's first White House chief of staff before being elected mayor of Chicago.

"During the Clinton administration there were efforts to fully enforce the gun laws we have through innovative crime gun tracing projects, partnerships with state and local law enforcement and tough prosecution initiatives," said Arkadi Gerney, an adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on illegal guns from 2006-11. "So far, the Obama administration has failed to live up to that legacy and has not used its executive powers to the fullest to fight illegal guns."

But the NRA has been the prime opponent of many other new gun laws and stalled funding for many existing programs in Congress. Before drawing widespread criticism for suggesting that armed guards be placed in public schools after the Sandy Hook slaughter, the NRA had opposed seemingly common sense measures like barring individuals on the FBI terrorist watch list from buying and owning weapons.

Politics: Biden's vow on curbing gun violence

Interestingly, conservative pollster Frank Luntz found that clear majorities of NRA members are more reasonable about implementing such common sense measures than their more rigidly ideological parent organization. For example, 71% of NRA members would bar people on the FBI terrorist watch list from buying and owning weapons, according to a poll Luntz conducted for the Bloomberg-backed group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Likewise, 79% of NRA members support requiring background checks on gun retail employees, 74% would support background checks on all potential gun buyers and 64% support requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms.

The NRA itself has changed since the conservative movement coalesced to take over the previously sportsman-focused organization. In the 1930s, the NRA supported the U.S. ban on machine guns, which still stands. Likewise, the NRA backed the 1968 Gun Control Law passed by President Johnson after the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. "Today's NRA is not that of our grandfathers," said Gerney. "Unfortunately, the leadership of the NRA has turned the organization into an obstacle, rather than the partner of decades ago, in the effort to pass smart laws to keep guns away from dangerous people."

The NRA's hard turn to the right makes it highly unlikely that it will want to work with the White House on any measure. But in fact there is some common ground to be found, even between these political foes. Ironically, that common ground is likely to be found in increased federal enforcement of existing laws through executive order, the same remedy that the Drudge Report disgustingly demagogued on Wednesday by comparing executive orders by the president of the United States to tyrannical actions taken by the mass murderers Hitler and Stalin. It was a shocking reminder of just how unhinged and hateful our civic debates have become.

But beyond these efforts to fear-monger for political and personal profit, the fact that some common ground exists between the White House and the NRA on gun control should be a heartening sign, a reality check amid all the overheated rhetoric.

Reasoning together to solve problems should never be considered impossible in America.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1842 GMT (0242 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 0035 GMT (0835 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT