MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And we're going to stick with this subject, the politics of guns, and bring in the voices of our regular Friday politics duo. That would be columnist David Brooks of The New York Times - he's here in the studio - and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. He is also co-author of "One Nation After Trump," and he is joining us from Boston today. Welcome back, you two.
DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.
E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Great to be here.
KELLY: David, let me start with you. Your column in The Times today is headlined "Guns And The Soul Of America." And in it, you argue that when Americans debate the gun issue, we're not just talking about guns, that guns are a proxy for something much bigger. Explain.
BROOKS: Yeah. Back in 2000, 67 percent of Americans said they supported greater gun control, and only 29 percent said they supported gun rights. Now it's about 50-50, and the divide exactly mirrors the divide between red and blue. And that's because we have a big culture war over a lot of things, but a lot of it is about the post-industrial economy and those who are benefiting from it and those who are against.
And those who are against it and who feel their values are under assault have taken on guns and immigration and a few other issues as their proxies to mobilize their defense. And they've said guns stand for freedom. Guns stands for personal responsibility, families defending themselves. Basically guns are what people like us have, and we don't want people who are not like us telling us what to do.
KELLY: Which would complicate gun control efforts if you're right on that. If guns are a proxy for freedom and self-reliance and bigger things, how do you find a lawmaker who's going to want to reign that in?
BROOKS: It's tough now to be a Republican, you know? Since we - since Sandy Hook, we've had all these Republican states basically loosening controls on guns because it's been sort of an identity issue as much as anything else.
KELLY: E.J., jump in here. In the wake of the horror that unfolded this week in Las Vegas, do you think the timing might be right for new gun control measures?
DIONNE: Well, you did see at least one piece of movement from the NRA, which is that they are willing to talk about getting rid of these bump stocks which turn automatic weapons essentially into machine guns. And it was interesting. The White House was vague on this issue. Then the NRA said it was open to them. And then Trump became open to them - no accident that the NRA spent about $30 million to help make Trump president.
I disagree with David because I think he cites this vague number on control versus not. When you go to very specific questions - for example, are Americans for or against background checks - overwhelmingly people in both parties are for background checks. Majorities in both parties are for an assault weapons ban.
So sure, if we have an abstract argument, we might get an abstract cultural clash. But in a lot of these specifics, very substantial majorities of Americans wants to do something about gun violence. And one of the things...
KELLY: If that is true, why is there this paralysis on guns? That's your term from a piece you had this week in The Post.
DIONNE: Partly because the NRA has effective veto power over the vast majority of Republicans in Congress - the support they gave them in election after election is overwhelming - and partly because our institutions, particularly in the Senate, are deeply biased in favor of rural states and against the metro areas.
Just take the vote on Manchin-Toomey, the background checks bill a few years ago. That passed, but it didn't pass 54-46. But it needed votes. It needed 60 to overcome a filibuster. Those 54 represented 63 percent of the American people. So we have a problem in our system where the vast majority are just not always represented the way the constitutional system overlaps with where we all live now.
KELLY: Sounds like you're not optimistic. But this week represents enough of a sea change that we may see any kind of change in the way Congress handles this. David, what do you think?
BROOKS: Yeah, I think we're both giving different forms of pessimism...
BROOKS: ...About whether anything is going to get done. You know, I think I - the reason the NRA is powerful is not 'cause they give money compared to the money the Koch brothers gives. It's relatively small. They're powerful because 1 in 4 households have a gun. They're powerful because there are more gun shops and gun clubs in this country than there are McDonald's. They've just got a mass movement, and they build relationships.
You know, I personally would love to see gun control passed. I think it would sharply reduce the number of suicides we have in this country. But I don't think we should get our hopes up that it would radically reduce these kinds of horrific attacks. Marco Rubio said something in the campaign where he said, none of the recent attacks would be prevented by all the gun laws that people are talking about. The Washington Post did a big analysis, and they concluded that he was basically - what he said was accurate. And so...
DIONNE: But could I...
BROOKS: Go ahead.
KELLY: Please, E.J.
DIONNE: Yeah, no, I just disagree with that. If you look at charts of countries with large numbers of guns and track that against countries with large amounts of violence of this sort, we are way up there. There are many countries where if you get a handle on guns - and there are many states that have gotten a handle on guns and have seen violence go down, Connecticut being a good example. So I don't think gun control is futile.
And I agree. The NRA is well-organized. They represent a minority. You now have some efforts to organize the majority that would like to pass gun laws. I think you need a couple of politicians who lose elections in a very visible way because they refuse to break with the NRA.
BROOKS: Just quickly, I think this really does get to the nub. I'm for background checks, all that stuff - not a big effect. But if we could radically reduce the number of guns, that - and then I would think that would have some effect. But there are - what? - 300 million guns in this country. We're going to start taking them away from people. That's a big change. I do think it comes down to - a colleague of mine Bret Stephens wrote a column this week, "Should We Repeal The Second Amendment?" (ph). And to me, if you're not talking about that big issue, you're really not talking about the core of this thing.
KELLY: A quick response from you, E.J. Should we repeal the Second Amendment?
DIONNE: I just think we need a Supreme Court that correctly interprets the Second Amendment. I think the last decision was wrong. But you know what? The Supreme Court even in that decision gave Congress a lot of room to act so we can act without repealing the Second Amendment again. Small states have such a stranglehold on our government that repeal is not on the table right now.
KELLY: Before I let you both go, I want to turn you quickly to one other matter, and that was the strange spectacle that unfolded at the State Department this week. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called a press conference to insist that he is not quitting and to answer a question about whether he called his boss - that would be the president of the United States - a moron. Here's his answer.
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REX TILLERSON: I'm not going to deal with petty stuff like that. I mean, this is what I don't understand about Washington.
KELLY: David Brooks, I called this a strange spectacle. How strange are we talking here?
BROOKS: If I called my boss a moron, I would think it would be a big thing, not a petty thing. You know, he's - the core issue here is, as Bob Corker, the senator from Tennessee, put it, do we have a firewall against chaos? And I think Tillerson is becoming a less and less effective firewall. And I think he's not long for this world. And if somebody like John Kelly could come into the State Department, it would be a better...
KELLY: Chief of staff...
BROOKS: ...Firewall against Trumpian chaos.
KELLY: E.J., quick last word from you.
DIONNE: This was weirdness squared when the secretary of state can't even deny - although I suppose it's a tribute to his honesty that he called the president a moron. I agree. I don't think he's long for that job, and this is unsustainable.
KELLY: All right, we'll have to leave it there. That is E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and The Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Thanks very much to you both.
BROOKS: Thank you.
DIONNE: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.