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Facing the Real Gun Problem

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Charles Ommanney/Contact Press Images
The NRA’s annual convention, Houston, April 2005

3.

Diaz’s dismissal of gun owners’ concerns is not atypical. In Gun Guys, Dan Baum collects a number of examples:

Newspaper editorialists called gun owners “a ridiculous minority of airheads,” “a handful of middle-age fat guys with popguns,” and “hicksville cowboys” with “macho” hang-ups. For Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post, gun guys were “bumpkins and yeehaws who like to think they are protecting their homes against imagined swarthy marauders desperate to steal their flea-bitten sofas from their rotting front porches.” Mark Morford of SF Gate called female shooters “bored, under-educated, bitter, terrified, badly dressed, pasty, hate-spewin’ suburban white women from lost Midwestern towns with names like Frankenmuth.”

Baum rightly concludes, “It was impossible to imagine getting away with such cruel dismissals of, say, blacks or gays, yet among a certain set, backhanding gun owners was good sport, even righteous.”

Rather than offering up yet another book about gun policy, Baum sets out to understand what motivates so many Americans to be “gun guys.” Baum himself learned to love guns when, as a small, young, and not particularly athletic summer camper, he found refuge in his skill at shooting. But he doesn’t otherwise fit the assumed mold: he’s a New Jersey Democrat from a Jewish family in which no one else ever owned a gun, a former staff writer for The New Yorker, and a believer in “unions, gay rights, progressive taxation, the United Nations, public works, permissive immigration, single-payer health care, [and] reproductive choice.”

For his journey through gun country, he dons an NRA cap and gets a license to carry his gun in public. As he travels, he is guided by the “Gun Store Finder” app on his iPod. It leads him, as often as not, to boarded-up gun shops, reflecting the reality that gun ownership in America is dropping significantly. In the 1970s, almost half of American households owned a gun, but by 2012, that share had dropped to 34 percent.4

But there are still plenty of gun owners out there, and they come in all shapes and sizes. One in four Democrats has a gun in his home, while 60 percent of Republicans do. In an effort to understand gun owners, Baum interviews and portrays, among others: the founder of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership; an attractive athletic couple who compete in “run and gun” submachine gun competitions; an enthusiastic machine gun collector; an African-American who buys a gun and becomes a self-defense trainer after he’s robbed at gunpoint; and a former aerospace machinist who now runs a multimillion-dollar company building high-quality assault weapons.

Through visiting with these and other gun owners, Baum identifies a range of reasons underlying the passion for guns. Some are attracted to the gun as an elegant machine, many of which still work perfectly more than one hundred years after their manufacture. Others enjoy the feeling of hyper-alertness that carrying a gun entails. As Baum describes it, wearing a gun heightens one’s senses:

Everything around me appeared brilliantly sharp, the colors extra rich, the contrasts shockingly stark. I could hear footsteps on the pavement two blocks away.

For many, the gun is a means of self-defense. Some thrill to the feeling of power their guns provide; hunters relish the chase and the kill. For still others, as Baum himself found at summer camp, guns are a kind of primitive equalizer, neutralizing natural differences in strength, stamina, intelligence, and the like. Baum quotes a 150-year old advertisement by Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company: “God made all men, but Samuel Colt made them equal.” And for some, such as nineteenth-century Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, the gun is a critical check against government abuse, “the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers.”5

Baum depicts these people and their different motives with genuine empathy, for after all, he shares their feelings for guns. But he is more mystified by the broader conservativism that so many of them espouse. As Nate Silver recently reported:

Whether someone owns a gun is a more powerful predictor of a person’s political party than her gender, whether she identifies as gay or lesbian, whether she is Hispanic, whether she lives in the South, or a number of other demographic characteristics.6

Gun rights play an important part in libertarianism, of course; they are a concrete (if largely symbolic) manifestation of the individual’s right to stand up to tyrannical government. But Baum’s interviews also suggest that “gun guys” are driven to conservatism at least in part by their sense that liberals are not only insensitive to, but affirmatively disrespectful of, their interests:

What was also coming through again and again was that gun guys felt insulted. They had something they liked to do—own and shoot guns—and because of it they suffered, they believed, a continuous assault on their hobby, their lifestyle, and their dignity…. At precisely the moment they were sensing their numbers shrinking, gun guys were experiencing what they perceived as a nonstop attack on their very worth as human beings.

Some of the Democratic Party’s best strategists have acknowledged just this concern. In 2013, Bill Clinton warned a closed-door group of top Democratic donors not to dismiss gun owners, saying: “Do not patronize the passionate supporters of your opponents by looking down your nose at them.”7 Democratic strategists James Carville and Paul Begala similarly wrote in 2006 that by disrespecting gun rights, “Democrats risk inflaming and alienating millions of voters who might otherwise be open to voting Democratic.”

Many blame the NRA for the stalemate on federal gun policy, but Baum suggests the issue runs much deeper. The NRA has four million members, but so does the National Wildlife Federation, rarely thought of as wielding outsized influence on Capitol Hill. And while the NRA donates to many political candidates, its donations are often relatively small. As Baum writes, “NRA contributions to congressional candidates were about half that of the pipe-fitters’ union—and when was the last time politicians cowered before the pipe fitters?” He concludes: “It was more comforting, I suppose, to imagine the enemy as a goliath who played dirty than to face the reality: that gun laws were loose because that was the way most Americans wanted them.”

But what are we to make of the fact that even a modest expansion of background checks, supported by 90 percent of the American public, has thus far failed? The outcome may reflect the vastly different degrees of intensity with which proponents of gun rights and gun control hold their respective preferences. The fact that the right to bear arms is tangibly embodied in a prized personal possession, associated in many owners’ minds with self-defense, power, patriotism, and equality, means that gun owners will be more motivated to act on their preferences, to lobby their representatives, and to make the gun issue dispositive in the voting booth. By contrast, it is the rare citizen, Michael Bloomberg notwithstanding, who makes gun control his make-or-break issue.

4.

This doesn’t mean that liberals should shy away from the problem of gun violence. The 1.3 million gun deaths since 1960 demand our attention and action; reducing gun violence is a moral imperative. But if any meaningful reform is to be achieved, it must be done in league with, not in opposition to, many of those who own guns and feel strongly about their right to do so. The way forward requires identifying reforms that would be both effective and respectful of gun owners’ legitimate concerns.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Heller should make consensus easier to achieve. By precluding bans on ordinary guns and rifles, it should reassure gun owners that the slippery slope they have feared is not at hand. And by acknowledging the propriety of reasonable regulation, the Court left the door open to a range of gun reforms short of outright bans. So what should be done?

First, we should abandon efforts to ban assault weapons. Each year murders with all kinds of rifles, including assault weapons, make up only about 3 percent of all homicides in the US. A 2003 study in Jersey City, New Jersey, found that large-capacity magazines figured in less than 5 percent of shootings. The vast majority of gun injuries and deaths are attributable to ordinary handguns. If pushing for an assault weapon ban will do little to address gun violence but will harden gun owners’ resistance to other reforms, is it really worth the cost?

Second, the effort to close background check loopholes should be revived. Universal background checks are eminently sensible, and are reportedly favored by a very large majority of gun owners and nonowners alike. There can be little objection to keeping guns out of the hands of people who are demonstrably more likely to misuse them, such as convicted felons and perpetrators of domestic abuse. Since the present federal background check regime was instituted in 1994, more than two million applications to purchase firearms have been blocked, and many other people have undoubtedly been deterred. More ineligible gun purchasers would be thwarted if the background checks applied not only to federally registered gun stores, as is now the case, but also to the gun shows that account for many gun purchases. Background checks are not a complete solution, of course. Many crimes are committed by people who passed background checks, or who stole their guns. But the fact that the checks are not foolproof does not mean that they are not a sensible reform.

Third, stricter gun safety regulations should be pursued. Far too many gun tragedies occur because children or criminals gain access to guns that were left loaded and/or unsecured. In May, for example, a five-year-old boy in Kentucky accidentally shot and killed his two-year-old sister with a gun his parents had given him as a birthday present and had stored loaded and unlocked. Safe storage laws, requiring that guns be locked and inaccessible to children, have been found to reduce the incidence of gun accidents. Moreover, safety can now be built into the design of guns, essentially making them operate, like password-protected computers, only for those authorized to use them.

Background checks and safety requirements do not disrespect gun owners. They simply acknowledge that some people are not to be trusted with guns, and that it is important to do what we can to keep guns away from them. But if we are to get gun owners’ support for such reforms, we need to make clear that they are not designed to start a cascade toward confiscation or outright bans. And one way to facilitate that would be to acknowledge more openly and respectfully gun owners’ legitimate concerns.

Finally, any effort to address gun violence must also look beyond gun regulation, to the root causes of the violence. As noted above, the vast majority of gun deaths are caused by handguns. The Constitution forbids banning ordinary guns, and Americans do not support such bans anyway. And with 270 million guns already in private hands, it is too late for a meaningful ban in any event. Accordingly, if we want to do something about gun violence, we must move beyond guns themselves, to address the problem at its roots.

Gun violence is not evenly distributed throughout the nation. Young black males die of gun homicide at a rate eight times that of young white males, and the problem is concentrated among the urban poor. In 1995, the national homicide rate was about 10 per 100,000; the rate for Boston gang members was 1,539 per 100,000. The problem in the inner city will not be solved by gun laws alone, but by efforts to respond to systemic poverty, unemployment, gangs, broken families, failed public education, and drugs. Dealing effectively with these causes would reduce gun violence without in any way affecting gun rights, and so should trigger no objections from the NRA. Indeed, if the NRA and gun owners want to preserve their rights and reduce gun violence, they should affirmatively support such initiatives.

Decriminalizing drugs, for example, would likely do more to reduce violence than banning guns. As Prohibition showed, when criminal law bans widely used commodities, a black market arises, and private violence ensues. Better public education, after-school programs, job training, and employment opportunities would also likely reduce gun violence by affording children born into despair a realistic way out. And reducing mass incarceration, which has drastic collateral consequences for the children and families of the incarcerated, would also help.

None of these reforms is easy. A few states have made incremental progress toward decriminalization of marijuana, but drug decriminalization remains politically untouchable in most states and at the federal level. Investing in poor communities is costly. And mass incarceration, because its harms are suffered largely by underprivileged minorities, generates little public outcry.

The public is horrified, at least briefly, by catastrophes like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Because such a shooting could happen anywhere, everyone can imagine it in his own backyard. But in truth, mass shootings are an infinitesimal part of the problem. Gun violence is concentrated in economically devastated neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Los Angeles. And precisely because the problem is focused in these locales, the majority can and does ignore it. Closing background check loopholes and mandating gun safety are sensible and desirable reforms. But if we really want to do something about gun violence, we must go beyond such measures and invest real resources where the problem is most acute.

  1. 4

    Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff, “Share of Homes With Guns Shows 4-Decade Decline,” The New York Times, March 9, 2013. 

  2. 5

    Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution, Vol. 3, section 1890 (1833). 

  3. 6

    Nate Silver, “Party Identity in a Gun Cabinet,” FiveThirtyEight blog, December 18, 2012. 

  4. 7

    Byron Tau, “Bill Clinton to Democrats: Don’t Trivialize Gun Culture,” Politico, January 19, 2013. 

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