The Real Reason Gun Control Is Failing

Human Rights

The Michael Bloomberg-funded Everytown for Gun Safety announced on Monday a new gambit for creating pressure on candidates to move, finally, in the direction of stricter gun laws: the group will offer them a survey. Everytown – one of several sane competitors playing the long game against the National Rifle Association’s stranglehold on violence in America – will make politicians put their positions on firearm restrictions, however convoluted, on the record. As the head of the organization, which has $50m in Bloomberg backing to the NRA’s untold millions, pronounced:“Now we’re going toe-to-toe with the gun lobby.”

This has the feel of a good idea, because it is one – one already employed, simply to opposite effect, by the NRA itself. Everytown isn't offering a counterweight to the NRA's rating system, it is duplicating it … just without the grades. What information could an anti-gun voter would find in the Everytown questionnaire that the NRA hasn't ferreted out itself? It will tell you who to vote for as surely as a National Right-to-Life rating will direct a voter concerned about preserving the right to choose.

The NRA's ratings are a symptom of its success, not the cause. And the idea that voters are just waiting to vote against pro-gun candidates – if they only knew who they were – badly misdiagnoses the disconnect between gun-control activists and Americans in general. It’s that very disconnect that put meaningful gun legislation into legislative free-fall. To address the gap, activists such as those at Everytown need to redraw focus away from the infrequent horror of mass shootings and get voters to recognize the daily tragedies of gun violence. A taller order, but just as necessary: make clear that the gun violence is not about violent people with guns – it's about guns, period.

The real audience for the NRA's ratings aren't voters but the candidates themselves. They are a measure of how much financial support the candidate can expect from the NRA itself and its membership. In that regard, Bloomberg's millions may function similarly for Everytown ... and its ratings may have the same disappointing results.

In the 2012 cycle, the NRA saw a miserable return on its investment in electoral spending – the percent of its money that wound up on the winning side of an election was less than 1%. Now, that number is not as heartening to gun-control supporters as it sounds. The group spent most of its money, $7m of $11m, against Obama, and much of the remaining $4m challenging the Democratic incumbents who rode Obama's coattails.

But this is the hard lesson that Everytown and its supporters might learn from the NRA's bad bet: There are remarkably few single-issue gun voters. In fact, according to Gallup, just 2% of Americans think guns are the most pressing national problem, which doesn't even mean that 2% of Americans think there should be more gun control. Since 2001, the percentage of respondents who think the main problem with our gun laws is that they’re too strict has gone up from 9% to 16%, and the number who think they aren't strict enough has gone down, from 39% to 31%. The past decade has seen lurid, saturating coverage of mass shootings that's made us more aware of them than ever – even if they're not actually more common. And people are less sure that we need more gun control.

gallup gun laws

via Gallup

So, if the NRA's endorsement and its funding mean less and less, how do you square that with general American support for "stricter gun control" sitting 39 points lower today than it was in 1990? An even bigger conundrum: How do you make sense of a new Quinnipiac poll that showed overwhelming majorities of Americans, gun owners, Democrats and Republicans favoring specific new restrictions on gun sales – background checks for all buyers, laws against purchase by the mentally ill – when the same poll showing strong resistance (47%) to "stricter gun laws" in general?

I suspect this disconnect between gun-control advocates and the average, not-very-concerned voter has to do with the very tactic that Everytown and its ideological brethren believe to be their most effective pitch: We need gun control to stop mass shootings. We need gun control to protect our children from mad men and criminals.

That argument actually shares the same logic the NRA applies to this country’s mass-shooting problem: What we need are fewer "bad guys" with guns. You make that argument, and of course you get support for the legislation that would seem to address that specific issue – background checks, bans on gun possession by the certifiably mentally ill. Even the NRA supports the latter – well, they say they do.

There has been a push lately among state legislatures for laws that allow police to confiscate the weapons of those deemed a danger to themselves or others. Connecticut recently adopted such a statute, and there are similar considerations in California and New Jersey. It’s exactly the kind of measure that finds purchase in the wake of specific tragedies but will do little to prevent the kinds of spontaneous crimes and impulsive suicides that make up the vast majority of gun deaths. (Most non-felony related gun deaths are due to "escalation" in arguments; studies have suggestedthat gun suicides appear to be particularly impulsive.)

That’s the key misunderstanding between gun-control advocates and the wide swath of voters they need on their side: Americans are OK with guns. They don't like violence. They don't like guns in the hands of mad men and criminals, or shoved in their faces in restaurants and shopping centers, but they're OK with guns.

Most people probably think of themselves as neutral or commonsensical on the issue; they can draw a line between themselves and "gun nuts," they can believe they are tastefully moderate on the issue, they can vote for a "pro-gun" candidate without associating themselves with fringe-y loons like Wayne LaPierre or Cliven Bundy. They might even be able to look at a pro-gun control report card and see it as a menu of options, a variety of approaches to the same general problem: violence committed by violent people.

But there is no such thing as a neutral position on guns, because there is no such thing as a neutral gun. Guns have one purpose: to kill things. They are no more neutral than a poison. They can be used for good or ill, but the reason they exist is to hurt someone. In the "bad guy with a gun" versus a "good guy with a gun" scenario, the problem isn't who's bad and who's good, it's that there is a gun involved, period. Introduce a gun into a social equation and you immediately increase the odds of someone getting injured or killed – whether by his own hand, by accident, or by another member of the household. Studies show this over and over andover again.

Guns are not objects, and I doubt we can change the way our country deals with them by thinking of guns as merely potentially dangerous things that need to be regulated, no different than unstable chemicals or cold medicines. Guns are death waiting to happen, and Everytown's survey is a quaint eulogy for those who have already passed.

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