Why We Need to Talk About Guns

NRA Annual Meeting, Houston TX 2005.
Although most gun owners aren't insurrectionists, gun politics is not simply about differences on policy proposals. Gun politics is about what it means to be a good American. Charles Ommanney

Whenever America suffers a mass public shooting—seven times in 2012 alone—
I think about my dad and our months of wrenching conversations after the Columbine High School massacre more than a decade ago.

A Colorado farm boy who grew up with guns and displayed the family rifle in his study, Dad agreed with the National Rifle Association that an armed population was a bulwark against tyranny. His wayward daughter had gone east to college (never good) and settled in Washington, D.C., the nation's "murder capital." While he feared the government, I was more afraid of muggers and rapists.

But Dad and I had this in common: the shooting at Columbine, just a few miles west of my high school, shook us deeply. When Coloradans had the opportunity to close the "gun-show loophole" by requiring background checks on private sales, Dad and 70 percent of his fellow voters said yes, because "something had to be done." I went on to write a scholarly book critical of the "ban all handguns" approach of early gun-control advocates. I'd like to believe that Dad and I learned something from each other.

The Sandy Hook massacre has renewed calls for a "national conversation" on guns. In an earlier age, when we all tuned in to the same nightly news broadcasts and came together in the same nation-spanning associations, such a conversation might have made sense, but it's not even remotely possible in today's fractured America. Instead, we must have millions of unfiltered, nuanced, and possibly unpleasant individual conversations, the kind Dad and I had, about the scourge of firearms violence. Policy won't change until we do, but the good news is that there has not been a better time in decades to begin such conversations in earnest.

Admittedly, the task won't be easy. The gun debate has long been dominated by the National Rifle Association, whose 3 million to 4 million members vote and otherwise engage at levels unmatched by their adversaries. And the NRA has deep pockets, donating 3,200 times as much as a leading opponent in the 2012 election cycle and spending 73 times as much on lobbying in the most recent Congress, according to the Sunlight Foundation. For at least a decade, most national Democrats have kept their heads down, hoping the gun issue will go away, while Republicans have trumpeted their Second Amendment credentials at every opportunity.

The growing partisan divide extends to the American public. In a 1999 survey, the gap between Republicans and Democrats on most questions was fairly narrow: Republicans were just 6 percentage points less likely than Democrats to favor a ban on high-capacity magazines; 6 percentage points more likely to believe that gun laws were too strict; and 14 points more likely to believe that a gun makes the home safer. But in a Pew Research Center poll taken after the Sandy Hook massacre, the partisan gap on similar questions was markedly wider. Republicans were 16 percentage points less likely to favor banning high-capacity magazines, and roughly 30 percentage points more likely to believe that guns enhance safety. Indeed, over the last two decades, Pew found a 27-point rise among Republicans who believe that it's more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns than to control gun ownership. For Democrats, sentiment fluctuated slightly but remained essentially unchanged over time.

Gun-rights supporters offer a variety of arguments—some of them admirable in intent, others of them antidemocratic, even dangerous. While my dad saw gun owners as an army of patriots prepared to defend against a coup, today's gun-rights activists emphasize what they see as threats from within—lawful immigrants, welfare recipients, "socialists" in Congress—advancing their issues through the democratic process. More ominously, a vocal subculture has publicly embraced Americans' right to confront our democratically elected government by force of arms. As gun-control advocates Joshua Horwitz and Casey Anderson have documented, this insurrectionist ideology—with its antigovernment conspiracy theories and apocalyptic soothsaying—is standard fare at gun shows, in the blogosphere, and within some gun-rights groups. (On Christmas Eve, one gun-rights supporter told me she hoped "there are enough of us real Americans who value our freedoms and liberties to keep folks such as yourself from bringing [total government control] to fruition.")

Although most gun owners aren't insurrectionists, gun politics is not simply about differences on policy proposals. Gun politics is about what it means to be a good American. It's personal. Even gun owners who don't belong to the NRA believe, as my dad did, that gun ownership is a civic virtue, a hallmark of American self-reliance and duty. These notions form the logic of the NRA's successful campaigns to loosen laws governing the carrying of concealed firearms, to pass "stand your ground" measures allowing gun owners to shoot assailants even when retreat is possible, and to spotlight stories of how regular "armed citizens" routinely save the day. For gun owners, ownership is evidence of their civic spirit. This is true on the other side as well: people seeking stricter firearms laws believe that good citizenship means caring for others and fulfilling the Constitution's promise of "domestic Tranquility"; when they are called "com­mu­nists" or "Nazis," they take it as an insult to their civic spirit.

Given how entrenched the politics have become, do we have any hope of lowering the number of gun deaths, currently around 30,000 per year? President Obama's task force, chaired by Vice President Joe Biden, is a good start, as is the stated willingness of a few pro-gun-rights senators to reconsider some of their prior positions. For their part, pro-control lawmakers have long since abandoned many of their stalwart proposals, such as universal handgun registration and owner licensing, which proved offensive to the gun lobby. But if history is any guide, reaching a consensus on gun-violence prevention will require lawmakers to have political cover from the citizens they serve.

Recent surveys suggest that we might just be able to deliver. Even as polls show growing polarization on guns, specific policy questions also have found gun owners to be more open to legal reforms than might be expected. For example, Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that 74 percent of NRA members and 80 percent of gun owners support a criminal-background check for anyone purchasing a gun (the law that my dad supported and that's on the books in several states). Meanwhile, in a YouGov poll, a majority of non-NRA gun owners would support a five-day waiting period for firearms pur­chases, and nearly half would be willing to ban high-capacity magazines. Half of gun owners believe that civilian ownership of assault weapons makes the country more dangerous, according to a Pew survey. Although gun-rights hardliners may not join these policy discussions, the YouGov poll makes clear that people with guns in their homes, and even those who personally own guns, might well be amenable. Their participation will be critical.

The legal landscape is also surprisingly hospitable, thanks in part to the Supreme Court. In 2008 and 2010, the court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to have a gun in the home for self-­protection, thereby erecting a firewall around gun ownership that should put some pro-gun activists more at ease.

As a result of these openings, gun-control advocates have begun looking to talk about guns in less threatening and more fruitful ways. One approach takes as its model strategies used by gay-marriage advocates to deliver Election Day victories in three states—including Maine, which had defeated the measure just three years earlier. What changed was strategy: marriage-equality advocates found a resonant argument—gay couples want the same things that heterosexual couples want—and then went door-to-door, to tens of thousands of homes, in a campaign of friendly persuasion. As an Atlantic magazine analysis noted, "Canvassers were encouraged to share their own stories—to talk about their gay friends and relatives, their own guiding values, their experiences with marriage." Even before Sandy Hook, the article reports, gun-control advocates were studying the same-sex marriage campaigns for ideas that might translate.

Another approach has emerged from victims and family members of those shot in the nation's most recent massacres. While survivors and their family members have always been active, the recent tragedies have given those most visibly affected by gun violence a national platform. Through initiatives such as We Are Better Than This and Demand a Plan, these reluctant survivor-­activists—Republicans and Democrats, gun owners and not—have offered to lead thoughtful conversations on gun policy and other proposals to reduce the suffering.

A new generation of Americans has now come of age in the era of Columbine and Virginia Tech. These under-30 voters do not respond to the identity politics that have defined the gun issue for close to four decades. Rather, they favor nonpartisan, pragmatic problem solving. Even many of their weary elders agree.

The time for shrill, slogan-driven "national conversations" is over. The time to really talk has just begun.