I'm a member of the National Rifle Association and a former Army officer with assignments in the military police, artillery, and operations research and intelligence at the Pentagon.
I'm also Ted Nugent's older brother.
Ted and I recently attended the NRA convention in Houston, where he delivered the gathering's final speech and continued his ardent defense of the Second Amendment. Ted and I have hunted together for decades, and together we legally own a large number of guns. We both understand that guns constitute deadly force, so safety is foremost in our minds. It's part of responsible gun ownership.
And I agree with Ted that our constitutional right to bear arms should not be undermined. I want all those who are qualified to purchase a gun to be able to do so. But — and here is where I part ways with my brother — not everyone is qualified to own a gun, so expanded background checks should be a legislative priority.
I believe strongly that expanding and improving mandatory background checks will keep a lot of people who aren't entitled to Second Amendment rights from having easy access to guns. As of today, a convicted felon can find a gun show or a private seller and buy a firearm without a background check. That loophole should be closed. Every gun transaction must include a thorough background check. Why would responsible gun owners want to protect people who threaten not only our safety but our gun rights?
The NRA has it wrong: Irresponsible gun owners are bad for everyone. If you shouldn't have access to a gun, then there should be no way for you to access a gun! Can anyone argue with that?
Consider the mentally ill, one of the biggest threats to firearm safety. How do we preserve their rights to health privacy while keeping firearms out of their hands? It's a huge concern, given the role mental illness has played in recent gun violence tragedies. While some states have made progress, it's far from universal.
But convicted felons, people with restraining orders against them and those with a history of mental illness can still find ways to purchase weapons. No one should stand for this.
The tragedy in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, and the gun violence that claims on average eight children per day in the United States, require us to think differently about what the Second Amendment really means.
Does anyone have the right to drive a car without first obtaining a license? Better yet, try buying a car without a driver's license. Car companies know it is good for the auto industry to make cars safer and get dangerous drivers off the road. Why can't gun manufacturers and the NRA realize this as well? (Driving a car is not a constitutional right, I know, but the safety implications are similar.)
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America (now called the Partnership at Drugfree.org) offers a useful model in the complicated challenge of preventing gun violence. Its effort hit Americans in the face with aggressive messaging, including full-page print ads and television spots — who can forget the "This is your brain on drugs" ads? — that helped make drug use a lot less cool. This campaign changed a culture.
Today, all of us, including responsible gun owners, can help make another cultural shift.
In addition to the holes in the gun-buying process, there are other major causes of gun violence: For example, perpetrators who are not prosecuted or who are put back on the streets through bail; or those who serve a minor sentence, are released and become repeat offenders. (Think of gang warfare in cities such as Chicago.)
Enhanced background checks need not threaten the Second Amendment. Why are the NRA and the elected representatives who support it so slow to realize this? Or do they fear a slippery slope toward greater restrictions on gun rights? If they don't want to burden a flawed system, they should be part of fixing it.
Reducing gun violence and protecting the Second Amendment is not an either-or idea. I challenge the NRA's leadership to partner with groups such as Evolve, which I recently joined, that seek to protect gun rights while creating a culture of responsibility, safe gun use and prudent access to firearms.
Can we imagine an NRA capable of taking that on? Or are we doomed to the uncompromising philosophy driving everything the organization does? I want to be proud of being a member of a proactive NRA.
I attended this month's NRA convention to better understand what the organization is thinking and advocating. Speakers such as Glenn Beck and my brother are extremely articulate and connect with that audience, while Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, excels at creating a strident stand-and-fight mentality that does not speak for the majority of gun owners.
Ted and I have talked about these matters over the years, but more often lately. I concede that he is right on some points; in some instances, cities and states with less-strict gun laws have less violent crime. But that does not argue for arming America. Ted is someone who speaks in extremes to make his points. It reflects who he is, and it works for him and his audience.
I have a 9-year-old son and two 6-year-old grandsons. Any of them could have been the victims of our recent gun tragedies — and still could become victims if we don't do something. Virtually every day we see the tragic stories of kids shooting other kids, of children being killed in a crossfire incident. We must act, not tomorrow, not the next day. End gun violence now, and start with limiting the purchase of firearms to those who really have the right.
Let's see if the NRA and its new leaders step up and do what is right. If not, it will get done without them. We all have a role here, especially to protect our children. Who is going to be the voice for them?
This requires nothing less than a major culture shift. It's been done before. We just have to do it again.
Jeffrey Nugent is the former president and chief executive of Revlon and Neutrogena.
© 2013 Washington Post