Saturday, April 27, 2013

Rural exceptionalism in gun control legislation

I have been writing about the renewed debate on gun control, in relation to rurality, since the Newtown, Connecticut massacre last December.  Read those posts here and here.  Accommodating rural residents' need and or desire to buy guns is an issue that has cropped up in the last month in particular in relation to the federal debate over new gun control legislation.  A recent effort to close the loop-hole that permits those purchasing guns at gun shows and in private transactions to avoid background checks failed last week with 55 votes in support before Harry Reid changed his vote to "no" in a procedural measure to preserve the parliamentary right to bring it up again. That bill was a bi-partisan effort co-sponsored by Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania.  Among the Democratic Senators who crossed party lines to vote against that bill were Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.  A few Republicans, along with Toomey, went the other way, supporting the measure:  John McCain of Arizona; Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois; and Susan Collins of Maine.

Back before the Senate vote that defeated the Manchin-Toomey bill, Jennifer Steinhauer had described in a Times story a possible 11th hour change to the bill:
One approach designed to entice lawmakers representing large rural areas, particularly in Alaska, would exempt residents who live hundreds of miles from a gun dealer. Lawmakers are hoping that they can attract support from both Republicans and Democrats who are weighing the political costs and benefits of a bill against the perception that they are chipping away at gun rights.
Nothing else in Steinhauer's story illuminated what Manchin and Toomey had in mind, but yesterday's New York Times, reporting on renewed efforts to pass a federal law that would strengthen gun control by focusing on anti-trafficking measures, mentioned the rural exception to expanded background checks.  Journalist Jeremy Peters notes that Manchin is considering reviving his bill.  He would
tweak[   ] the language of his bill in a way that he believed would satisfy senators who, for example, felt that background checks on person-to-person gun sales would be too onerous for people who live in rural areas far from a sporting goods store. 
Those concerns were an issue for Alaska’s senators, Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat.
Recent Times coverage further highlights regionalism in gun control (or lack thereof) politics by noting that Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, was the "only one out of 22 senators on the East Coast north of Virginia who voted against strengthening background checks."

In an op-ed in today's New York Times, Robert A. Levy of the Cato Institute endorses some revived version of the Manchin-Toomey plan, including its rural exception.  Levy writes that any new proposal "should also exempt certain rural residents who live too far from a licensed gun dealer for a background check to be practicable."

All of this talk about a rural exception to background checks has me more than a little annoyed because of law's failure in other contexts to acknowledge or respond in a helpful way to the spatial isolation and attendant lack of rural services and amenities.  These include the right to vote and the right to terminate a pregnancy.  I have written about the jurisprudence of the latter here.

Above is a photo I took last week-end along Pleasant Valley Road, near Placerville, California, in El Dorado County.  El Dorado County is metropolitan by virtue of its population (180,561) and the fact it is contiguous with Sacramento County.  Yet the county has significant rural pockets, a relatively low population density and, many would say, a rural culture.   

1 comment:

Patricija said...

I am totally with you with regards to outrage. I don't understand why there a rural exception is considered for guns but not for other rights. You mentioned abortion and voting, but there is also healthcare, schools, etc. It is as if the right to a gun is somehow more important than all these other issues.

Further (and you may get mad at me for this), rural areas are severely lacking in mental health services. Interviews with individuals in a Northern California rural county revealed this was the prominent healthcare issue facing the area. It seems strange to me that you would have an exception for background checks in the very areas where mental health is not properly addressed. To me, this is a recipe for disaster