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Why is NRA spurning Obama move?

By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour speaks at the NRA meeting on May 15, 2009, in Phoenix.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour speaks at the NRA meeting on May 15, 2009, in Phoenix.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: NRA spurned President Obama's bid to discuss gun control
  • He says the continuing toll of deaths from gun violence can't be ignored
  • Supreme Court rulings have affirmed individual right to own guns, he says
  • Avlon: There's room for compromise that will satisfy both sides
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Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

New York (CNN) -- Two months after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, talking reasonably about gun policy remains a third rail in American politics.

That's despite this fact -- more than 2,400 Americans have died of gunshot wounds since the rampage in Tucson, Arizona. That is four times the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan last year, combined.

As Americans, we react forcefully to crisis and conflicts -- but we have a hard time focusing on more slow-moving problems, such as the daily blood drip-drip of gun violence.

Instead of facing facts and figuring out where constitutional common ground might be, we see a rush to bumper sticker policies, like Texas' new proposal to allow students to carry concealed weapons on college campuses, which took another step through the state Legislature yesterday . I can't imagine what could possibly go wrong with that plan.

This past weekend, President Obama wrote an op-ed for the Arizona Daily Star, in which he proposed strengthening the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and called for a depolarization of the gun policy debate. The administration signaled that it wanted to meet with the National Rifle Association.

The NRA's response was to flatly turn down any administration requests to meet. Its director, Wayne LaPierre, declared, "Why should I or the NRA go sit down with a group of people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the Second Amendment in the United States?"

Incredibly, one of the few new solutions to gun violence in the U.S. proposed by the NRA in a written response to the president was for "the national media to refrain from giving deranged criminals minute-by-minute coverage of their heinous acts." Apparently, if we just ignore gun violence, it might go away.

Supporting the Second Amendment should not have to mean avoiding inconvenient facts, like dead bodies piling up in American morgues. Of course it's rational to put the ultimate responsibility for bloodshed on the individual wielding the weapon. But as the British comedian Eddie Izzard has pointed out, "Guns don't kill people -- people kill people ... but the gun helps."

It especially helps when the Jared Loughners of the world can quickly get their hands on a killing machine which fires 31 shots in 15 seconds.

Take a step back and you'll actually find that gun policy is one more hot-button issue where activists on either side are deeply divided, but the majority of the American people are not. A Newsweek-Daily Beat poll found overwhelming support for one gun control measure: 86% favor background checks for every gun buyer, closing the gun show loophole.

"Too often, any serious discussion about guns devolves into ideological arguments that have nothing to do with the real problem," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed out at a Washington press conference this week with members of his coalition, Mayors Against Illegal Guns. "We also know from experience that we can keep guns away from dangerous people without imposing burdens on law-abiding gun owners."

As part of that effort, Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, both of New York, have proposed measures to strengthen the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, much along the lines the president proposed.

Second Amendment activists should feel secure about the individual right to bear arms, given a string of recent Supreme Court decisions striking down strong gun restrictions in Chicago and Washington. Obama has even signed legislation into law which loosened existing gun laws, by making it legal to bring firearms into federal parks.

But gun debates, like so many culture war wedge issues, are often reason-free zones among the activist crowd. Last year, I interviewed protesters at a Second Amendment rally in a park outside of Washington for The Daily Beast, and pointed out that the only reason the rally was possible was the aforementioned legislation signed by Obama.

"As far as Obama signing anything, I think that's just a ploy," a protester named Randy Dye told me. "I think he's just trying to appease us for today. But down the road, I still feel that our Second Amendment rights are going to be threatened."

These fears have been systematically stoked by the fear-mongering-for-fun-and-profit crowd. Glenn Beck has told his listeners that Obama "will slowly but surely take away your gun or take away your ability to shoot a gun, carry a gun."

Divisions are often inflamed for narrow partisan reasons -- but it wasn't always this way. The NRA has been a proactive partner of some government programs in the past, like Project Exile, which moved the prosecution of crimes committed with an unlicensed gun into federal court. The pilot program in Richmond, Virginia, succeeded in cutting the "gun carry" rate among criminal suspects in half within two years.

If that example doesn't carry weight with conservatives today, then perhaps this testimonial will. Ronald Reagan backed the Brady Bill and signed a 15-day waiting period for handgun sales when he was governor of California. In a New York Times op-ed piece from 1991, he wrote, "Critics claim that 'waiting period' legislation in the states that have it doesn't work, that criminals just go to nearby states that lack such laws to buy their weapons. True enough, and all the more reason to have a Federal law that fills the gaps."

Reagan was reflecting on the anniversary of his attempted assassination by a mentally ill man with a handgun, which occurred 30 years ago this month.

The lessons we learn from the horrific human costs of gun violence shouldn't be filtered through a partisan prism. Strengthening background checks to make it more difficult for the mentally ill to get their hands on a gun, and increasing prosecution and penalties for illegal gun trafficking, should be policies we can agree on.

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