CNN Frames Gun Violence Town Hall With A False Choice On The Second Amendment

An article previewing CNN's town hall event on gun violence falsely suggested that it is not possible to simultaneously support the Second Amendment and support regulating firearms.

On January 7, CNN will air an hour-long “Guns in America” town hall following this week's announcement by President Obama of executive actions to reduce gun violence. CNN invited Obama to participate in the event, and he accepted. The network also invited the National Rifle Association to participate, but the group declined the invitation and made the false claim that the event was “orchestrated by the White House” -- it was actually organized by CNN.

A CNN spokesperson's characterization of the event makes it appear that the town hall is premised upon the false choice between supporting the Second Amendment and regulating firearms. According to the spokesperson, “the audience would be evenly divided between organizations that support the Second Amendment including NRA members as well as groups that back gun regulation.”

This language implies that it is not possible to support both gun regulations and the Second Amendment, and is reflective of flawed polling questions on the issue of gun violence. For example, an October 2015 Washington Post-ABC News poll asked respondents, “Which do you think should be a higher priority right now - (enacting new laws to try to reduce gun violence), or (protecting the right to own guns)?”

Although it now acknowledges the question is flawed, Pew Research Center for years has asked respondents to pick between whether it is more important to “control gun ownership” or to “protect the right of Americans to own guns.”

This type of premise ignores that it is entirely possible to regulate firearms while also supporting the Second Amendment. As Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research director Daniel Webster said of the Pew question, “The question's implicit and incorrect assumption is that regulations of gun sales infringe on gun owners' rights and control their ability to own guns. The reality is that the vast majority of gun laws restrict the ability of criminals and other dangerous people to get guns and place minimal burdens on potential gun purchasers such as undergoing a background check. Such policies enjoy overwhelming public support.”

More thoughtful polling has indicated that gun owners see firearm regulation as consistent with the Second Amendment. A November 2015 Public Policy Polling survey asked gun owners whether “supporting Second Amendment rights goes hand-in-hand with keeping illegal guns out of the hands of criminals and abusers.” The vast majority -- 82 percent of respondents -- agreed that it does.

The notion that it is possible to regulate guns in a manner consistent with the Second Amendment is also evident in the Supreme Court's 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision. In striking down Washington, D.C.'s total ban on handguns, conservative justice Antonin Scalia also indicated that a wide range of gun restrictions are “presumptively lawful.” The vast majority of restrictions on firearms do not run afoul of the Second Amendment. Out of 900 Second Amendment challenges to gun laws since Heller, more than 96 percent failed. There is also no serious legal question about whether expanded background checks are currently constitutional -- they are.

CNN also may present viewers with a distorted view of the popularity of gun regulations by evenly splitting the audience, given the significant popularity among the general public of the proposals Obama has advocated.

A major component of Obama's newly announced executive actions is a clarification about what it means to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms. People who are “engaged in the business” of selling firearms must obtain a license and perform background checks on customers, while people who claim that they are not “engaged in the business” do not need a license or to run checks. This discrepancy is what is known as the “private sale loophole” or “gun show loophole.”

Obama's “engaged in the business” executive action clarifies the law on what it means to be a gun dealer and requires people who are engaged in high-volume sales or engaging in commercial enterprises to obtain a Federal Firearms License and run background checks on customers, even if their sales are done online or at gun shows.

According to newly released polling, the general public is clearly in favor of Obama taking executive action to clarify what it means to be “engaged in the business.” According to polling released on January 4 by Americans for Responsible Solutions, “a supermajority of voters -- 73 percent -- support 'an executive action by President Obama that would require anyone who sells a large number of guns per year to become a licensed gun dealer and require background checks on all of their gun sales, including those sold online or at gun shows'.”

And in a more general sense, the proposition that background checks should be expanded to all gun sales -- something that would require action by Congress -- is overwhelmingly popular with the public, with numerous polls pegging support at around 90 percent. (Background checks are also widely supported among NRA members and gun owners.)

While CNN should be commended for devoting an evening to addressing the important issue of gun violence, the network should be careful to frame its event in a way that is fair to the realities of gun regulation and popular opinion in the United States.