Gun-control advocates both gnashed their teeth and wrung their hands last weekend — a year after the Newtown, Conn., massacre — over their inability to advance their movement’s agenda. Newtown, in the view of many people (including those who know better) should have been the incident that finally catalyzed revolutionary change.
What explains the apparent helplessness of the gun-control movement? Here are a few possible explanations:
1. This is the obvious one: The National Rifle Association and smaller groups to its right (yes, there is space to the NRA’s right) remain enormously potent. The NRA has successfully polarized the debate over guns: To many of its members, support for gun control means opposition to liberty. But the NRA, like any successful lobbying group, is successful in part because it’s pushing on an open door. Gun ownership is a powerful political and cultural signifier across much of this country — just not the parts where most of my journalist colleagues reside.
2. It is true that gun owners are a minority in this country and opponents of any form of gun control are a decided minority. But the NRA and the members of Congress it lobbies know that with guns, as with any emotion-driven cause, it is the intensity of effort, rather than the sheer number of supporters, that is the defining metric of success. The majority of Americans might support efforts at closing the gun-show loophole — the loophole that does not require background checks on certain kinds of gun buyers — but what are they doing about it, apart from alerting telephone pollsters of their support? Second Amendment absolutists call, and write, and demonstrate and donate, in defense of what they understand to be their way of life and the essence of freedom itself. The NRA’s opposition is, in the main, not nearly as passionate and unbending.
3. Many Americans decline to assign blame to the tools used by criminals to kill; instead they blame the killers themselves. An analogy: When a drunk driver kills an innocent person, no one blames the car. Gun owners — the vast majority of whom own their guns legally and store and use them responsibly — simply don’t understand why their rights should be curtailed because other people are criminals, or idiots.
4. The bulk of fatal shootings in the U.S. fall into two main categories: Suicides and gang-related violence. Certain traumatic moments — such as Newtown, Aurora and Columbine in Colorado, and Virginia Tech — focus the public’s attention on the threat of random shootings. But attention wanes because gun violence is, in fact, a distant threat for most Americans.
5. Gun-control groups have failed to explain to doubters why the current, Newtown-inspired, campaign for universal background checks isn’t a non sequitur. The Newtown killer stole the weapons he used in his massacre from his mother, who purchased them legally. More stringent background checks would not have stopped this horror from happening. The Newtown massacre is as much a manifestation of a mental-health care crisis, as it is a sign of a gun crisis. Legislators should have spent the past year working harder on issues related to mental-health care, and not quite so hard on a series of fixes that would not have stopped this massacre.
Gun-control advocates, and their friends in Congress and state legislatures, must admit to themselves that the fixes they propose are mainly symbolic. There is a striking timidity to the gun-control movement. America is awash in guns — about 300 million are now in private hands. Mainstream, incremental, gun control measures, if enacted, would not reduce the number of guns in society, and they would only work at the margins of the problem. In other words, laws that would have prohibited the Newtown killer’s mother from acquiring her weapons would have been more helpful. (I am still a supporter of universal background checks, though I believe that their impact would be minimal.)
A better strategy would be to attack the problem frontally and encourage an open debate about the utility of Second Amendment protections in a more-urbanized, 21st century U.S. Not that this is going to happen anytime soon. But piecemeal reforms aren’t going to happen anytime soon, either.