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Home / Guest Commentary / Jeffrey Goldberg: Why Newtown didn’t change America
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.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Why Newtown didn’t change America

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.

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  1. This article is politically biased as the author works for “Bloomberg”. Who does not see that is ignorant.

  2. Universal background checks would have stopped zero o the past mass shootings. Universal background checks are only an attempt at universal registration. WE all should know where that leads. It was proven again ad again by governments eventually coming for confisgation and then followed by extermination. A government thatout and out lies to us, spys on us, intimidates its political enemies, refuses to release documents of government gun running can’t be trusted right here at home.

  3. If this is “all about the children” as so many who would use children deaths as a means to further their political agenda would like for people to believe, then why aren’t those same people raising hell about some 700 children who drown in swimming pools every year (highly preventable with fencing and child proof locks by the way) or the 2000+ who continue to die in automobile accidents every year or the 1000+ who die from beatings using weapons other than firearms. Because the truth is the shrill voices crying for gun control don’t give a rats butt about the children, they just see another way to conflate their political agenda with an emotional component they hope will blind the unthinking into action. Unfortunately for them, most Americans smell the rat they have run up on their flag pole for what it is, a lie wrapped in a horror served up as a deception.

  4. An interesting reprint from the left leaning Bloomberg News. The author is a lot more honest than most who comment on this issue.

    I wish it were possible to ask him to explain one thing:

    “I am still a supporter of universal background checks, though I believe that their impact would be minimal.”

    Even the most strident anti-gun activists will, in rare moments of honesty, admit that their proposed laws won’t really do anything. So why are they willing to pay such a high price to enact them? It does not make sense unless there is some ulterior motive beyond the claimed “common sense gun safety” goals they espouse.

    Think about it, what is the real goal? I wish I knew.

  5. WAH! Friggin’ WAH!!!!

    Buy a clue. Times change, but principles don’t, and First Principles are the very foundation of our republic, the core of individual liberty.

  6. Not a bad analysis. One thing more, and you should roll this one around in your mind for a while, and see if you obtain any truth from it. Anti gunners are perpetually foaming about compromises. A compromise being,of course, a situation where two elements are striving for some kind of an agreement, and they BOTH give up something so that they can derive an agreement towards a common end. However, the Anti gunners mean no such thing. When they say compromise, they mean capitulation and victory, total or partial. They never offer the pro gun side anything. The pro gun side never gets anything from these “common sense sit downs and talks”. Legislation works out exactly the same. More restrictions, bans, outlawing, confiscations, penalties, fines, imprisonments. And this has been going on for a hundred years, and shows no sign of ending. My kids at school have a thing that is called “Student Code of Conduct”. It is nothing more that a list of punishments. And that is exactly what US law, State law, City, and County and Parrish law is in this country, nothing but a list of punishments, virtue being its own reward, I guess. All citizens of every political and other stripe know this. So when you or anyone else talks about “sensible gun laws”, and ” eliminating the gun show loophole”, we know exactly what you’re talking about. The Anti gunners are whipping up blood and guilt and want to eventually eliminate all private ownership of guns, period. To state otherwise is a lie. So think a bit. If you and the other anti gunners are getting so much resistance to your objectives, why is that? And do you really think WE’RE going to give in, first?

  7. “It is true that gun owners are a minority in this country and opponents of any form of gun control are a decided minority.”

    As it turns out, those that disfavor stricter gun laws are now the majority, say recent CNN and Gallup polls. And opposition to “any” form of gun control has not be a subject of any debate, has it?

    But more to the point, the US Constitution has two intents: 1) to fence government in to protect infringment of individual freedom and liberty, and 2) to protect the minority from the rule of the majority.

    When well over 40% of homes have guns in them, it is not so easy to dismiss gun owners as a rare element of society.

  8. Police said Matt Dosser “acted with honor” and probably saved the life of store owner Mohamed Ahmed.

  9. Mr. Goldberg, you ALMOST get it. You still don’t understand the purpose of the right to be armed. The “utility of the 2nd Amendment”?? Sir, the 2nd Amendment restricts the powers of the government. It does nothing else. It does not bestow rights on ‘We The People’ anymore than any other piece of parchment can bestow rights. Our rights are inherent in our human condition and have never relied on a document for their existence.
    A debate on the right of being armed could indeed be had, but the leaders of the gun control movement only see any compromise of the gun owners as a step on the way to total bans. With that in mind, why would any gun owner give up any liberty, when he knew that would lead to the loss of all liberty. Those who advocate gun control have proven throughout history, that they cannot be trusted. Charles Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Diane Feinstein, Michael Bloomberg, Barack Obama. Who among that group could be trusted not to demand more, after they get that first bite?
    When you compromise a little liberty, they will ask for more and then demand more, until you have none. The proper answer is: Molon Labe.

  10. [A better strategy would be to attack the problem frontally and encourage an open debate about…]

    6. When anti-gun folks call for “open debate” and exclude the gun-rights side, or don’t let them speak, or dismiss any gun-rights suggestions as “insanity” it’s a bit difficult to have the dialogue you want.

    7. When gun-control organizations try to hide their agendas by relabeling themselves “gun-safety” organizations people like me who have been teaching real gun safety for thirty years find it hard to relate.

    8. When gun-control organizations claim to respect the Second Amendment and assure gun owners they don’t want to take their guns away; then publicly support D.C.’s harsh laws and the recently vetoed California every-semiauto-is-an-assault-weapon ban, it makes it difficult to trust them enough for a conversation, much less an agreement.

  11. Funny, the 2011 gallup poll identified 47% of all households had a gun, at 2.5 people per household per US Census, thats more than 100 million, an all time high.

  12. I applaud your honesty and perspicacity. Given your understanding, it seems that you still desire the disarmament of the vast majority of citizens. Would you please explain why? I can explain why I believe that most citizens having arms is a positive good. I am curious as to why you would consider it a negative.

  13. “I am still a supporter of universal background checks, though I believe that their impact would be minimal”

    Seriously? You assert objectivity yet when push comes to shove you cannot help yourself and resort back to what you know, feelings, irrationality, and statism.

    You anti-gunners wouldn’t understand liberty if it kicked you in the head. Colorado recently passed gun control legislation that should make any anti-gunner orgasm, yet it did absolutely NOTHING to stop the last nutjob to try to kill someone in a school. I notice that you did not address that the NRA was right, and your side was wrong. A good guy with a gun on premise stopped the bad guy with a gun. By the time law enforcement arrived a lot of innocents could have been murdered. The only thing your policies do is guarantee nutjobs have no resistance by their unarmed targets, thanks to the irrational such as yourself. You should be ashamed.

  14. The ulterior goal of the gun grabbers is total and complete civilian disarmament. That’s it. To their patron saint Michael Bloomberg, any gun not controlled by the police or military is an ‘illegal gun”. That’s why they admit that piecemeal legislation is ineffective, or “a good first step”, with the ultimate subsequent steps leading to total disarmament. They fool absolutely NO ONE.

    The Evolution of Gun Control:


  15. Before you push ANY new gun control laws, may I respectfully request that you show me where, ANY, gun control law(s) have worked to reduce violent crime. And PLEASE don’t try to obfuscate the debate by saying countries with strict gun control laws have lower rates of gun crime, I said gun control doesn’t reduce VIOLENT CRIME! I’ve NEVER been shown that gun control EVER works, ANYWHERE! In fact, the exact opposite seems to be true! Doesn’t it seem curious that the places in the U.S. with the strictest gun control laws have the highest rates of murder, i.e., Washington D.C., Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, etc.

    And something else that seems to be missing in the debate from the anti-civil-rights crowd is the FACT that the vast majority of mass shootings take place in “GUN FREE ZONES!” Gosh, go figure! Nut-jobs want to do their dastardly deeds in places where they know they’ll find DEFENSELESS VICTIMS! Rather than calling them gun free zones, we should rightly be calling them DEFENSELESS VICTIM ZONES!

    Gun control advocates seemingly want to do stuff that FEELS good, regardless of it’s effectiveness.

  16. This NRA member is also in favor of universal background checks. The “gun show loophole” is a myth; all licensed dealers, which usually make up the bulk of any gun show, must all carry out checks juat as is required in their brick-and-mortar stores. What has Bloomberg and other gun ban zealot’s panties in a bunch is private sales. These can happen anywhere; a gun show, a kitchen table, over the backyard fence; classified ads (paper and internet); community bulletin boards, etc. In fact, most are done this way, given that less than 4% of “crime guns” can be traced to any gun show. The terrible, sloppy mess of a bill they tried to foist on us, complete with registration and FEES (a.k.a. new defacto taxes) HAD to die. It was garbage. What is needed is for all sellers to be able to run checks, anywhere, anytime. So in addition to allowing sellers acces to the phone-in NICS, they need to put NICS online for all to see/use. No privacy issues are violated, because all NICS returns is a “Proceed,” “Deny” or “Hold” response. A seller could access NICS through his/her smart phone, iPad or computer as well as the phone. Oh, and make it FREE, just as it is for FFL dealers.

    Whether or not such a thing would have a large or small impact, the idea is due dilligence: we should deny as many legal channels to criminals and prohibited persons as reasonably possible. And this system would shut some yaps and may even save a life or two. I see no reason to oppose it.

    I do take issue with some of the assertions in 1 and 2; the number of gun owners only recently fell below half of all U.S. households, and this “data” is not at all scientific. Given that many gun owners are unwilling to answer any surveys that discuss their own gun ownership, I suspect that gun ownership is as strong as ever, especially since gun sales have set records almost every year since 9/11/2001. There were huge spikes each time President Obama was elected, and other, smaller ones when things like Sandy Hook happened and the discussion turned to gun control. (Incidentally, in the months following the shooting, the NRA’s membership rolls also set a new record, topping 5 million for the first time in its history.) Another statistic, according to the NSSF (the ACTUAL “gun lobby”), the fastest growing segment of new gun owners is women, who increased their gun buying by some 17% in the past year. This suggests that the number of gun owners is going UP, rather than down.

    Legislation has its limits. Thinking people know this. A great rule of thumb: any proposal where its author or proponent says, “It wouldn’t have prevented [fill-in the name of the shooting incident here].” then you know it’s a crap idea that will only burden the law abiding. Along with better mental health care, we really need to end the stupid, deadly “war on drugs.” We need to gut the gangs and the cartels. We also need far better resources aimed at suicide prevention, which made up some 61% of all “gun homicide” last year.

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