Crossfire: The battle over gun control in America

Following the massacre of 20 school children and six teachers in Newtown, Conn., CBC's the fifth estate examines the gun control debate in the United States and asks whether America's policy has any effect on Canadians.

CBC's fifth estate explores the explosive issue in the wake of the Newtown massacre

Richard Feldman, a longtime gun lobbyist, gave U.S. President Ronald Reagan his first semi-automatic rifle. (Courtesy of Richard Feldman)

Shortly after the massacre of 20 school children and six teachers in Newtown, Conn., in December, U.S. airwaves were full of pundits predicting the slaughter of innocents might spark gun-control reform in America.

But within a few weeks, it became clear that Americans were as divided as ever over the issue.

The National Rifle Association, which spends millions lobbying legislators in Washington, treats the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — the right to bear arms — as sacred, according to veteran gun industry analyst and author Tom Diaz.

"The NRA … has described itself as a religion, and it has dogma and it is very difficult to change," Diaz told Bob McKeown of CBC's fifth estate.

That message has already been made clear to President Barack Obama, who has been branded in NRA publications as the most anti-gun president in the country's history.

It’s a message the group made sure President Bill Clinton understood after he got an assault weapons bill passed in 1994, former NRA lobbyist and political operative Richard Feldman says.

Feldman also discovered the high cost of compromising on guns. When he brokered a deal between the Clinton Administration and firearms manufacturers, such as Glock, to put child safety locks on guns, he became an NRA enemy, too, he says.

"I don't think they really objected to the policy," Feldman said. "But Bill Clinton wasn't exactly considered a friend of America's gun owners and NRA was in a big fight with him."

According to gun-control activists who spoke to the fifth estate, the NRA has been similarly uncompromising toward U.S. government agencies it sees infringing on the Second Amendment.

The Firearms Owners Protection Act was passed in 1986 after a strong push of support from the NRA. Under the act, federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are prohibited from making more than one unannounced inspection of a gun dealership more than once a year. 

Richard Feldman, right, a former NRA lobbyist and political operative, worked on gun-control issues with U.S. President Bill Clinton. (Courtesy of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library )
An exception to the "once per year" rule exists if multiple record-keeping violations are recorded in an inspection, in which case ATF agents may do a follow-up inspection. The main reason for a follow-up inspection would be if guns could not be accounted for.

This makes it very difficult for the agency to make sure gun dealers are obeying the law, according to David Chipman, a retired ATF special agent who is now a consultant with the advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

"In my opinion, a professional firearms dealer doing the right thing — conducting background checks, keeping proper records — is the absolute frontline of defence in any proper gun regulation," he told the fifth estate.

"So that’s why …for the small minority of dealers who aren’t abiding by the rules or might be acting criminally, it’s essential to ferret those out," Chipman said.

The fifth estate’s investigation revealed guns from some of those rule-breaking dealers find their way into Canada along a smuggling route known as the Iron Pipeline or the Blue Steel Highway. It’s estimated up to 70 per cent of guns recovered at Toronto crime scenes alone come from the U.S., Toronto police Chief Bill Blair has said.

ATF has agents in Canada

The ATF has two agents based in Canada to help trace smuggled guns back to their origins. However, resources are a challenge for the ATF, which must oversee more than 50,000 gun dealerships and more than 300 million guns in America with a staff of 2,500. The organization has also gone without a full time director for since 2006.

According to Chipman, the NRA is so determined to limit the ATF’s effectiveness that even President George W. Bush’s nominee was blocked from getting the job by NRA-backed Republicans in Congress. One of the senators who blocked the nomination was Larry Craig, a Republican from Idaho and a member of the NRA’s board of directors.

"It’s almost as if the gun issue is so hyper-politicized it has transcended normal politics," Chipman said.

Confirmation hearings for Obama’s nominee for ATF director — current acting director B. Todd Jones — will be a test of whether the Newtown shooting has changed the status quo over the ATF.

Republicans in Congress - led by NRA-endorsed Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa - have already indicated they will oppose his nomination.