ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In fact, we reached out to every senator who opposed the amendment yesterday to expand background checks on gun purchases, and invited them to appear on this program. And we got nos or no answer from all but one, Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
Dr. Coburn has a substitute proposal, one that he thinks is more practical than the Manchin-Toomey Amendment. And Dr. Coburn, thank you very much for joining us today.
SENATOR TOM COBURN: Good to be with you.
SIEGEL: You've said that your plan would make the process of confirming that a buyer is not on the National Instant Criminal Background system list of prohibited buyers as simple as using a Smartphone app or printing a boarding pass from your home computer. How can you do that and guarantee that someone, say, who just received a restraining order against harassing his wife last month will not be sold the gun that he might use to menace her?
COBURN: Well, the same way if you went through a licensed gun dealer - they wouldn't be there either. So what was proposed yesterday actually doesn't work. And the reason it doesn't work is if you've ever been to a gun show, the vast majority of guns sold at gun shows aren't sold by licensed dealers. They're sold by other people who are trading guns. So you have to address it. Will they go and pay a tax and pay a fee to have a gun or will they make a deal and consummate the transaction outside of the gun show? And that's what was going to happen.
SIEGEL: But there seems to be some circular reasoning here. Wasn't the whole idea to try to extend background checks to transactions at gun shows?
COBURN: Well, that's why - yes, but if you do it the way they did it, they're not going to do it that way. And that's why if you make it - look, compliance to law is best when you make it easy to comply with. And that's why our proposal actually is common sense. It creates a way for people who want to sell their weapon to know they're not selling to somebody on the do-not-buy list and, you know, enhancing that list.
But your question is, if somebody that just got a restraining order isn't going to be on the NICS list anyway. But that's a part of our problem. That some of the things we are trying to address. But they're not on the list. So whether you do it through the gun show or whether you do it through my way, they still wouldn't be there.
SIEGEL: You would make the NICS list accessible to anybody who is about to sell a gun, and they would know if that buyer is on the list are not.
COBURN: Yes, but we put the onus on the person who's buying a gun to demonstrate that they're not on the list.
SIEGEL: Well, but if the person who sold the gun looked and saw the name was on the list, wouldn't the onus be on the seller as well?
COBURN: Well, but we set it up the other way, so that if you want to purchase a gun and proactively, then you have to prove you're not on the NICS list; you're not on the do-not-buy list. In other words, you can't inhibit - what I'm trying to do is a common sense way to allow people to comply with the law that will actually make a difference. The Toomey-Manchin proposal won't make a difference because the people will avoid it.
SIEGEL: And if this were the system by which you would effectively find out if anybody purchasing a gun, either at a gun show or online was on the NICS list or not - if that were the method of doing it than you could effectively vote for that as opposed to...
COBURN: Yeah, it's my bill.
SIEGEL: Strictly on the base of practicality...
COBURN: Well, look.
SIEGEL: ...not on the principle of the...
COBURN: Look, what we know is, is the vast majority of criminals buy their guns from other criminals or steal them, when you survey the prisoners. But 20 or 30 percent of those are actually sold by the law-abiding citizens not knowing they're selling to somebody on the list. So we ought to make it - and so, ours would apply to a gun show as well. If you're going to sell a gun at a gun show, and you're not a licensed dealer, they've got to demonstrate they're not on the list. And you can...
SIEGEL: The FBI, by the way, says that 92 percent of all on NICS background checks take two to three minutes at most.
SIEGEL: That doesn't sound like the most burdensome...
COBURN: It's not. What we're suggesting isn't hard. But the point is, is let's make it easy for people to comply to follow the law. And if you make it easy - if 90 percent of the people believe in a background check, then 90 percent of the people are going to follow this law. The people who aren't going to follow the law aren't going to follow it anyway.
SIEGEL: You've set of your amendment that it reaffirms the federal policy that there will not be a federal firearms registry, and places strict penalties for violation of that policy. Do you concede that the Manchin-Toomey amendment did that too? This is where President Obama said yesterday: The gun lobby and its allies willfully lied about the bill; they claimed that it would create some sort of Big Brother registry even though the bill did the opposite.
COBURN: I did not hear anybody say that.
SIEGEL: You didn't hear anybody say that it would do that?
COBURN: No, I didn't hear that. I'm a, you know, a supporter of the second - I didn't hear that argument. It wasn't made on the floor during the debate.
SIEGEL: It wasn't made by any NRA spokesman that you heard talking about this?
COBURN: No, not that I heard.
SIEGEL: The slippery slope argument...
COBURN: Not aware of that.
SIEGEL: ...that we were on the way to a national registry?
COBURN: Well, that's - but you - let's talk about that in context.
COBURN: What's going on in our country right now is a loss of confidence in the federal government. And there is a difference in the gun culture in Connecticut versus Oklahoma. You know, the vast majority of Oklahomans have guns, use guns, hunt with guns, do shooting, trade guns. What has happened is as we've lost confidence in our federal government, you get all sorts of worries if you don't have confidence in balancing the budget or doing the right things on health care or doing the right things on these other things, what happens is you create all sorts of perceived paranoia that give people cause.
SIEGEL: Well, Senator Coburn, as you've raised the differences between the states, you've said that your plan on background checks respects the 10th Amendment by giving states the ability to take primacy of enforcement. Would that permit Connecticut to have a more rigid standard and to ban somebody owning a weapon there that Oklahoma might approve of?
COBURN: Absolutely. As long as that they're in the guidelines of the Supreme Court precedents that have been passed.
SIEGEL: Which allowed for certain kinds of extraordinary weapons, presumably the varied assault weapons that would have been on the ban, the Feinstein ban, for example, that would be up to a state to ban if they so choose.
COBURN: As long as they're within the guidelines as established by the Supreme Court.
SIEGEL: And a license, permit to carry a concealed weapon, could states make them as rigid as they chose and...
COBURN: As long as they're within the guidelines of the Supreme Court of not restricting the Second Amendment.
SIEGEL: And perhaps not recognize the permit that's been issued by another state, can you...
COBURN: That went down. That had 58, 57 votes.
SIEGEL: The amendment to make everything universal, everything recognized...
COBURN: Well, no, it was to recognize - see, there's a difference. It's not accurate to say that. It's like a driver's license. In Oklahoma, if I go to Connecticut, I have to obey Connecticut's driving laws, but my license is from Oklahoma. What the amendment that was offered yesterday says if you are a concealed carrier, you can have concealed carry if Connecticut has concealed carry, but you have to follow their laws.
So whatever they are. So the point is, is we have reciprocity in everything except that. And so it's not about changing Connecticut's laws or somebody else. It's about complying with their laws.
SIEGEL: Last point. How many Republican votes do you think you could bring over for this amendment that you've written, if that's the only change between this and the Manchin-Toomey amendment. If the bill otherwise...
COBURN: There's a big difference in our amendments.
SIEGEL: And how much do you think the difference would be in votes?
COBURN: I have no idea.
SIEGEL: Are you talking to colleagues and trying to bring them on?
COBURN: You bet.
SIEGEL: And do you hear any interest or is this (unintelligible)?
COBURN: I hear the same worries that we heard yesterday, it's a slippery slope, I heard that.
SIEGEL: Even about what you're proposing.
COBURN: Yeah. But the point is, look, my position is I don't kowtow to the NRA. I'm not ever running for another election. I want to do what's smart for us and common sense, but I also want to protect states' 10th Amendment rights and I want to make sure we protect the Second Amendment right. And a lot of the things that have happened in our country, no matter what law we pass, would've happened.
Our biggest problem have been with all the mass shootings has been mental illness. And that's where we need to be addressing a lot of it.
SIEGEL: Senator and Dr. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, thank you very much for talking with us.
COBURN: You're welcome. See you later. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.