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Gun Control Reform Possible Without NRA Support?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael; Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler; sports writer and professor of journalism Kevin Blackistone, there in Washington, D.C. With us from Atlanta, Timothy Johnson. He is founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Foundation. That's a public policy organization focusing on advancing principles of limited government.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doing?



BUTLER: Thanks.



BLACKISTONE: What's happening?

IZRAEL: Prince Paul.

BUTLER: Doing all right.

IZRAEL: Making it do what it do. And Tim Johnson - Timothy Johnson, man, welcome back.

JOHNSON: Thank you, brother. I appreciate the opportunity.

IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's get it started. Vice President Joe Biden said he'll send recommendations for reducing gun violence to President Obama by next Tuesday. Now, Biden had a busy week. He met with gun control and gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association. Here's what he said to reporters yesterday.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There's an emerging set of recommendations, not coming from me, but coming from the groups we've met with. And I'm going to focus on the ones that relate primarily to gun ownership and the type of weapons that can be owned.

IZRAEL: But it turns out that the NRA walked away unhappy with the meeting with the vice president. Surprise, Michel.

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, they put out a statement saying, quote, "we were disappointed with how little this meeting had to do with keeping our children safe and how much it had to do with an agenda to attack the second amendment." Quoting here - and I think everybody remembers that these meetings were in response to the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that resulted in, you know, 20 kids dead, six adults dead.

And, even as the vice president was speaking, there was another school shooting in a different part of the country involving a high school student who shot another student and was talked down - or - by another - a teacher.

IZRAEL: Right. Yeah. Thanks, Michel. You know, Vice President Biden also hinted that the president might use executive orders to prevent mass shootings. You know, Paul Butler, for my part, I'm happy to see the vice president. He has a hobby and he's on point. He's on point with this, finally, you know, because, you know, talk show host Piers Morgan - his biggest criticism has been that, when these shootings happen, there's mourning, there are t-shirts, but then there's no action. Vice President Biden is right there, on point, ready to get this done. I'm happy to see it. What do you got to say?

BUTLER: I feel you, Jimi, and the president just has to do what he can, even if it means going around Congress, doing stuff by executive action, like stepping up background checks and making the ATF fulfill its responsibility to really investigate guns, because the NRA has Congress cowed. Even Democrats - over half of the Democrats get a A rating from it. So, you know, if you know, 20, 30 kids dying in Chicago every weekend doesn't matter, if a guy going into a kindergarten classroom and shooting folks doesn't matter, you know, Charlton Heston said, they're going to have to take these guns out of my cold, dead hands.

IZRAEL: And you're a former prosecutor, right? Do you think any of this can happen without the NRA's support?

BUTLER: I think it's got to because the NRA is never going to be onboard. They don't even want reasonable stuff like background checks for every person who buys a gun. I mean, give me a break.

IZRAEL: Timothy Johnson, you said...

JOHNSON: You know, I... (Laughing)

IZRAEL: No, wait. Now, you said you're a protector of the second amendment. Do you think gun laws need to change at all, brother? This is not a laughing matter. Seriously.

JOHNSON: Well, yeah. But why did this conversation start in the first place? It didn't start because of the killings in Chicago. It didn't start because of Trayvon Martin. This started because of assault weapons, so if we're going to talk about gun control, let's talk about gun control on all levels, not just about assault weapons. And let's make sure that we start up, once again, as I've said before, about education.

We know that criminals can still get guns off the streets, just everybody on this show right now could get guns, so I mean, what we're talking about is the NRA can have influence, just as other lobbying organizations have influence with Congress, but the real issue is, how do we deal with the gun control issue as we have, today, a major problem? And we have it in major cities, especially when it's black-on-black crime and guns are the tools that are used to kill each other. So I just find it interesting, the conversation that we're having, and we're talking about what the White House can do. But, when it's all said and done, it's still at a local level.

MARTIN: You know what? I'm interested, though, Timothy. What would you be willing to - as a person who identifies yourself as a person who's - I mean, I think most people support the Constitution of the United States. I mean, if you take office, you swear to, you know, defend the Constitution of the United States. It includes the second amendment, but what would you be willing to entertain? Because one of the reasons I'm curious about this is that conservatives, generally - when it comes to education reform, they don't say, we can't do anything until X. They say, you know what? You know what? No excuses. We're going to fix what happens in the schools. So even if the parents are all messed up, even if they come from a high poverty environment, no excuses. What happens during those eight hours a day in school matters. We're going to fix that. They don't accept the excuse that you can't fix anything until you fix everything. So is that, you know, so what would you be willing to change?

JOHNSON: No, no, I think - no, no, I think there are a number of things that have to change. And I don't have a problem with background checks. I don't have a problem when it comes down to how we regulate even ownership of guns. What I have a problem with is what spurs on the conversation. And the conversation that started here was in reference to what happened with 20 young children as well as six adults, and it was assault weapons. Whereas, when I look at what's going on in Chicago - what happened in 2012 in Chicago - we didn't see the same outcry. We didn't see it from Chicago. And so we didn't see it from the White House. So my concern is that we want to pick and choose those issues that we want to emphasize about weapons and how do we deal with gun control versus saying let's have a clear understanding of what we need to do nationwide and it needs to be a multi-prong attack and not just one prong.

MARTIN: Kevin?

BLACKISTONE: Well, I agree with that. You know, I would just point out that obviously Newtown kind of changed the narrative on gun control discussion because you see polls that are coming out now where a majority of Americans are now saying that you know what, we want stricter gun laws. We want to...

JOHNSON: But shouldn't that have happened in Colorado when it came to the theater?

MARTIN: Well, but...

JOHNSON: Shouldn't that have happened to the theater and the rest of those?

BLACKISTONE: They did but those numbers - and those numbers are continuing to trend up. And I also think - one of the interesting pieces I read in the aftermath of all this, was on the fact that the NRA's influence on Capitol Hill is not as great as people think, certainly when it comes to elected officials, and they don't have the influence that people just assume that they have. So getting back to one of the questions here, you know, I don't think you need the NRA right now to move forward on these sorts of reforms.

MARTIN: Well, I guess I don't understand, Tim, I don't understand your point. I mean you're saying that - let's say you and I are in a relationship and we're not understanding each other.


MARTIN: ...are you going to not come to an agreement because we finally get to a point - you might say something three times and on the fourth time I get it, are you going to say OK, well, I'm not going to come to an agreement now because you didn't get it the first time?

JOHNSON: No, no, no.

MARTIN: I mean what are you saying?

JOHNSON: No, no.


JOHNSON: And I'll go back and say what I said before. I believe there is a need for some changes. There's no doubt in my mind about that. I've had friends that lost their lives because of guns and guns getting in the wrong hands or people might've gotten them legally and still used them improperly.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

JOHNSON: So I don't have a disagreement but my motivation is is what is stemming this whole conversation that we'll have - if the conversation - if we would've had this conversation last summer after all the killings that took place in Chicago, but what did we do? We skirt over things that happen. We skirt over things that happened in Colorado, we skirt over this. And now that this happened in the elementary school - and it's so sad that it happened, but so now that it happened at an elementary school now it's a - and the conversation started not about gun control, but about assault weapons.

MARTIN: Well, we'll see.

JOHNSON: So we have to be clear about what are we talking about, what are we trying to accomplish? And if we're talking about we have these law-abiding citizens who believe in the Constitution, then why not say that from the very beginning we believe that Americans have a right, according to our Constitution, to own guns?

MARTIN: Well, we'll see.

JOHNSON: But we've got to do something to curtail the number of deaths and the number of killings and the number of people who are getting them even legally, and then going out there and hurting other people. That's what I'm talking about.


JOHNSON: We have to have a real conversation.

MARTIN: Ok. Tim, we get it. We'll talk about this next when the recommendations come out and we'll see what happens there.

If you're just joining us, we're having our weekly roundtable. And in the Barbershop, we're joined by Timothy Johnson from the Frederick Douglass Foundation; that's who was speaking just now. Also with us, writer Jimi Izrael, sportswriter Kevin Blackistone, law professor Paul Butler.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK. Well, let's keep it moving. Washington, D.C.'s quarterback Robert Griffin III is fresh out of surgery for his injured knee. The Redskins lost to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, but it's RGIII's knees that has fans fuming.

Kevin Blackstone, you're the sports guy. Take this. What happened to his knee and will he recover?

BLACKISTONE: Well, we think he'll recover because medical science and surgery has proven that very true with some recent injuries. Secondly, what happened was he plays in a very violent game. He happens to be a very physical quarterback. He got hit very hard in a game against Baltimore a month or so ago, suffered an injury there. Sat out a game, came back, was not 100 percent. And in a playoff game last week against Seattle, suffered further damage, which means he's going to have to get his knee reconstructed.

You know, it is hard to play football without getting hurt. And I think the interesting thing though, that has happened here is that there was a time - very recently, in fact - where we used to put a badge of courage on athletes who can play through injury and play through pain and play while hurt. I can tell you scores of stories about that. This time however, we've seen a shift in the way I think people think about athletes, and they don't think that this was a very smart move by the coach, the organization or the quarterback.

IZRAEL: OK. So my question is going forward, what does recovery look like? Because you need your knee to play football. I mean...

BLACKISTONE: Right. For...

IZRAEL: ...and he's never going to be 100 percent, I don't think.

BLACKISTONE: Well, he probably won't be 100 percent, we don't know, but we do know that this year we had Adrian Peterson almost set the individual record for rushing in the NFL, having come back from an ACL injury that he suffered a year ago on the very same field that Robert Griffin III just got hurt on just outside of Washington, D.C. So, you know, he can come back. Will he be 100 percent? Who knows? But you can pretty much bet that the playbook will be redacted and his skills will probably be somewhat redacted from what they - what they have been - what we've been accustomed to.

IZRAEL: Prince Paul. Paul Butler, you know, people are blaming Coach Mike Shanahan. What do you think?

BUTLER: Well, first of all, I love that you're calling me Prince Paul because he was one of the leads in De La Soul, one of my favorite old-time hip-hop groups.

IZRAEL: He was the producer.

BUTLER: I loved them. He was great. So I don't get how everybody's blaming the coach and blaming the surgeon, who was apparently on the...


BUTLER: The sidelines during the game because RGIII is a grown-A man. He's got agency...


BUTLER: ...and he said he wanted to play, right?


IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

BUTLER: The guy...

MARTIN: He's 23 years old.

BUTLER: Right. So he's an adult.

MARTIN: He's 23 years old and the coach is in charge.

BUTLER: He can vote. He can vote. He can drink and he can make his decisions about...

MARTIN: And it's a whole - he's going to put the entire franchise at risk because of a decision of a 23-year-old?


BUTLER: Look, Michel, if he had won the game, if he had given his usual star turn everybody would be saying like, what a great guy he was, how he had the guts. Look, football is a violent, brutal sport. You couldn't get me to do it for a million dollars a year but look, if you sign up, you sign up to get hurt, because you are going to get hurt.

MARTIN: And it's a team sport, so it isn't just about you and your ego.

BUTLER: And he should've known that. Right. He should have look...

MARTIN: Or your coach's ego.

IZRAEL: The coach had an obligation - the coach had an obligation to pull him out the game, period.

MARTIN: Right.

BUTLER: If RGIII had said he didn't want to play then - and the coach had made him play, everybody would be oh, look, you know, he's got no agency. He's been treated like a slave. Now some people...

MARTIN: That's true. That's different.

BUTLER: Some folks are saying now oh, he's like a slave, the coach made him play.


MARTIN: No. No. You contrast that, you contrast that with a decision made by the Washington baseball team, the Nationals, when their star pitcher, you know, a decision was made that he is recovering from an injury and the decision was made that he would have only a certain number of pitches during the season to protect his arm. And the Nationals, against all odds, made it to the playoffs. They still made the decision to say, you know what, we made a decision, certain number of to protect the franchise - not the particular game, to keep the eye on the long game, not the short game, and they look like geniuses now because if he misses an entire season because of this injury when he could have been taken out at halftime, what are you going to say?

IZRAEL: Mm-hmm.

BUTLER: Mm-hmm. You know, I just think when people like LeBron make decisions that they feel are in their best personal interest then we got to respect that and they have to deal with the consequences.

MARTIN: That's different. You're talking about being traded? That's a different issue.

BUTLER: Well, you know, he said I'm thinking about...

MARTIN: That's about labor.

BUTLER: ...what's right for me, what's best for me at this point in my career? I think that's what RGIII did too, and I think he's got to deal with it.

MARTIN: All right. Well, OK. Well...

IZRAEL: All right. Let's switch, let's talk about another game. The Alabama Crimson Tide destroyed Notre Dame on Monday for the college football national championship, 42 to 14. Oh, it was ugly, but what wasn't ugly was Katherine Webb, which I...

MARTIN: OK. Now you better step light.


IZRAEL: Yeah. Which I...

MARTIN: Step light.

IZRAEL: I don't know. I mean that's subjective. She's...

MARTIN: I'm just saying, you better step light.

IZRAEL: She's the girlfriend of Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron. You know, she may have gotten a little too much attention from ESPN's Brent Musburger. Here's a clip.


BRENT MUSBURGER: Wow, I'm telling you quarterbacks: You get all the good-looking women. What a beautiful woman. Wow.

KIRK HERBSTREIT: He's, A.J.'s doing some things right down in Tuscaloosa.

MUSBURGER: Whoa. So if you're a youngster in Alabama, start getting the football out and throw it around the backyard with Pop.

IZRAEL: Yeah. I mean she's not, she wasn't that serious...


MARTIN: But she's - that's not the question, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Yeah, but she wasn't like Kerry Washington or anything like that.

MARTIN: Excuse me. OK. All right. Let me help you. That's not the question.

IZRAEL: Oh, I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

MARTIN: That was not the question.

IZRAEL: OK. Back on point.

MARTIN: We're not asking for you to rate her.


MARTIN: She's a former Miss Alabama. She is a Miss Alabama.


MARTIN: She's Miss Alabama. So here's the question.

IZRAEL: She's from Alabama? Really?

MARTIN: Let me - OK - ignore him.


MARTIN: Kevin, the question is, a lot of people think that this was inappropriate and excessive. And Brent Musburger actually, ESPN actually apologized for Brent Musburger's comments, saying they went too far. And I have to ask you what you think. I know you work for ESPN, but...

BLACKISTONE: Yeah. That's fine. You know, I was listening to the SportsCenter this morning and two anchors brought up that game before. And one of them called Katherine Webb the hot girlfriend. So in a lot of ways ESPN kind of established this going into the game. They pointed out that in fact that she's a beauty queen, and at that point in the game for whatever reasons, because the camera was on and producers are pointing, hey, look at the family up there. Look at Katherine Webb. And then Brent Musburger affirms his concept of beauty for everyone.

I didn't think that an apology was necessary. Although I do understand the sensitivities of some women to the way he may have talked about...

MARTIN: Who are a significant number of football fans. I just thought I'd mention that.

IZRAEL: Right.

BLACKISTONE: Absolutely. Absolutely.

IZRAEL: I can identify with this. The same thing happens to me every time I go out with my wife. You know, I mean there's always somebody pointing and - but anyway, Timothy Johnson, Katherine Webb, you know, she said that she didn't have an apology coming. You know, she didn't think it was necessary. She told "The Today Show" that the media had been unfair to Musburger. What do you think?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, I'm kind of following along with Michel that I think one of the challenges that you have with this is kind of overboard, especially with it being Brent. I think you make a comment about it and then you move on. You don't just stay on top of it and talking about how fine and yada yada yada that he did. So...

IZRAEL: Yeah. It's not the Barbershop.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah. So I mean I think there was a kind of an overboard that he did. I mean make your observation, make your comment, and keep it moving would've probably been more appropriate. So, you know, but overall, her response was probably the most appropriate because she didn't see it as an insult. She didn't see it as a major problem and probably got Brent off with some more heavy weight that probably could have came from the ladies.

IZRAEL: Paul Butler, I thought it was a little creepy, just to be honest. I'm just going to put that out there. I thought it was a little creepy. What did you think?

BLACKISTONE: Seventy-three-year-old man?

IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah.


IZRAEL: I thought it was a little creepy.

BUTLER: Not at all. It's color commentary. They're supposed to keep it moving, keep, you know, people focused on what's fun and interesting. So, I mean if a woman is beautiful, what's the problem with calling her beautiful? I remember when President...

MARTIN: So basically she's the prize for being a football player? This is...

IZRAEL: Da, da, da. Right.


MARTIN: You get this. You get that.

BUTLER: She's not the prize. But...

MARTIN: I mean...

BUTLER: But, hey, you know, President Obama, when he got the re-election, he gave a speech - his acceptance speech - and he said that Sasha and Malia were smart and he also said they were beautiful. And people jumped on him about that. So I just don't get the math. What is wrong with saying that someone is attractive if they are?

IZRAEL: They should be attractive first.

BUTLER: No. He didn't say first. Obama said smart first then he said beautiful. The guy didn't know, Musburger didn't know this woman's resume.


BUTLER: All he knew was that she was fine and he said that. Big deal.

BLACKISTONE: People didn't like the possession.

MARTIN: Thank you.

BLACKISTONE: The possession deal.

MARTIN: Well, before we move off of football, I do want to mention another important story. The NFL linebacker Junior Seau, somebody we talked about in the program, scientists concluded he suffered chronic brain damage caused by multiple hits to the head. And I think everyone knows he took his own life and asked that his brain be studied. We're going to keep an eye on this important story. We'll talk more about it in the weeks ahead.

Thank you all for joining us. Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. Kevin Blackistone is a sports columnist and professor of journalism. Paul Butler is a law professor at Georgetown University. They were here in D.C. Timothy Johnson is the founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Foundation. He was with us from WCLK in Atlanta. Thank you all so much.


BUTLER: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Great to be here.

IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for the Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

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