The idea of a centrist version of the National Rifle Association—a group for gun owners that would be open to at least some gun-control legislation—is not new. It’s also not been particularly successful. Have you heard of the Independent Firearm Owners Association? Did you know Gabby Giffords’s gun-control group has a Gun Owners for Safety spinoff?
The latest iteration of this concept is 97Percent, which seeks common ground between gun owners and the rest of the country. It doesn’t purport to be a grassroots organization, but it uses polls and focus groups to guide its policy recommendations, giving special attention to gun restrictions that even gun owners support.
Unsurprisingly, the group has drawn wary looks from much of the gun-rights movement, but by welcoming a few high-profile conservatives and firearm enthusiasts into its ranks, it has at least earned itself a hearing. Former Republican congressman Joe Walsh is a member of the group’s leadership. The Heritage Foundation’s Amy Swearer has appeared on its podcast, and the group featured both Swearer and The Reload’s Stephen Gutowski at an event this week.
While many gun-control advocates look longingly toward Australia, which famously banned and confiscated hundreds of thousands of guns in the 1990s, 97Percent takes the American playing field as a given, looking to find ways to incorporate public opinion, the Second Amendment, and research into the effectiveness of various gun-control measures.
This week, the group released a policy road map, coupled with a more detailed report explaining how the agenda comports with both public opinion and empirical evidence. Ultimately, the ideas are focused on keeping guns away from dangerous people. There’s no push, for example, to ban “assault weapons”—“not only because of widespread opposition by gun owners but because of research evidence that these policies are not effective in reducing firearm violence rates,” according to the report.
The political potential for these ideas lies in the details. Consider, first, the proposal to expand the prohibition on felons possessing guns to include a ten-year ban for those convicted of violent misdemeanors. This could be done through federal policy or through state laws (which can be stricter than the federal standard). As the longer report explains, such a rule would have to spell out explicitly what counts as a “violent” crime. But keeping guns away from convicted violent criminals is undeniably popular.
The next two ideas—really, a hybrid system—concern permitting and universal background checks. The permitting system would have two levels; the first would allow for the purchase and possession of guns, and the second would allow concealed carry. Permit applicants would get background-checked more rigorously than is currently the case for gun sales, but their permits would allow them to purchase as many guns as they wanted without additional checks, including from private sellers. No longer, however, could a private individual sell a gun to another with no questions asked, as is currently legal in many states.
97Percent stresses that the permitting process would be based on objective criteria. This is important because, historically, while federally required background checks have searched for hard facts such as convictions and involuntary mental-health commitments, state permitting laws have often given law enforcement broad discretion to deny permit requests based on subjective judgments. This creates serious issues of fairness, corruption, and constitutionality, though permit advocates often claim that discretion is key to the laws’ effectiveness relative to a system that relies mainly on background checks.
More aggressively, individuals would have to show not just a lack of a criminal record but proof of formal safety training merely to own a gun. (Learning how to handle guns through years of practice as a child wouldn’t suffice.) This is a dramatic and intrusive change from the status quo in most states; indeed, about half of states no longer require a permit or training even to carry a gun. Also, since a permit expires after five years and would be needed to “possess” a gun, owners would presumably need to renew their permits repeatedly just to keep the guns they had already bought.
Permits and background checks poll well, but 97Percent’s very name—based on a poll finding that 97 percent of Americans support universal background checks—reveals a problematic disconnect. When policies involving permits and background checks are actually put before voters (for instance, in state referenda), they pass by far slimmer margins or even fail, possibly because opponents have had a chance to drive home specific criticisms of the policies at issue.
One common concern is that a permitting scheme, or background checks on private sales coupled with long-term record-keeping, would essentially create a “registry” (of either firearms or their owners) that could later be used to confiscate guns. 97Percent notes that gun dealers already keep detailed forms on buyers—but dealers are scattered across the country, the government consults these records only when investigating crimes, and, under current law, gun buyers can avoid having their identities recorded at all by purchasing from private individuals. For good or ill, 97Percent’s proposed system would create a centralized government record of all legal gun owners.
Lastly, the group’s report discusses red-flag laws, which can be used to take guns away from people manifesting troubling behaviors. To its credit, 97Percent stresses the need for due-process protections and punishments for deliberate abuse of the law. These policies have relatively small effects, but they can be useful.
Though they were left out of the road map, the report includes some ideas for expanding gun rights, which could make room for a compromise. These ideas include reciprocity for the proposed permits (meaning a permit from one state would allow the holder to carry a gun in others, instead of each state deciding which other states’ permits it’s willing to recognize), as well as relaxing gun prohibitions for nonviolent felons (though it’s not clear how many points such a proposal would win with the typical gun owner).
97Percent has tried to understand what gun owners think, and to craft a policy agenda gun owners could live with—one that zeroes in on a few promising policies and sets the rest aside. Whether they’ve really hit on a successful formula is for voters and policymakers to determine.