What Can We Do About Guns?

Posted on October 4, 2015

In response to the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, President Obama said:

This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.  We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.

I assume the President was talking to the majority in the U.S. Congress because average citizens do not agree with the longstanding political choice of doing nothing. Americans favor—and have always favored—strong legislation to oversee and restrict gun ownership: 93 percent favor a background check for every gun sale; 76 percent favor registration of all guns; 77 percent favor licensing of all gun owners.

Among these policy solutions, recent evidence demonstrates that handgun licensing can dramatically reduce crime and save thousands of lives. The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research found that after Connecticut enacted a licensing law in 1995, gun-related homicides dropped 40 percent over the following decade. In contrast, five years after Missouri repealed its licensing law in 2007, there was a 25 percent increase in firearm homicides.

Gun licensing (especially if it includes a fingerprint background check) clearly saves lives and is overwhelmingly popular. It should be a top priority for gun policy advocates. And yet, we’re not even talking about it on the national level. Why?

Politicians are scared.

Elected officials perceive that support for gun restrictions can hurt their chances of reelection. In nearly every legislative district this is a false perception, but it is true that two state senators in Colorado were defeated in recall elections that were supposedly about gun laws. (They lost because of turnout, which may or may not have been affected by the gun issue.)

Even without the fear of losing, reasonable-minded lawmakers often support the National Rifle Association’s positions because a mean-spirited minority of extremists hector and threaten them. These lawmakers see no practical or political advantage in supporting new gun laws and have a real sense that their lives could become very uncomfortable if they favor background checks, much less gun licensing.

Whatever lawmakers are feeling, however, the President is right about guns. We have to do something. But to be practical about it, we cannot expect the U.S. Congress or conservative-led state legislatures to act, no matter how many massacres occur. So, as pragmatists, what can we do about guns?

First, we should work to persuade pollsters to ask the right questions. Pollsters make two fundamental mistakes: they assume that people understand the meaning of gun policy language (they probably don’t), and they assume that people know what laws are currently on the books (they certainly don’t).

For example, polls show that the phrase “gun control” has become less popular. But who cares? Voters strongly support background checks, registration and licensing, so obviously they do favor “gun control” as anyone in public policy understands the term. In short, such polls are meaningless.

And when poll respondents say that they don’t think gun laws need to be more restrictive, it’s because they assume such commonsense measures like background checks for all gun purchases are already on the books. These poorly-designed polls give politicians a misimpression about public opinion.

The fact is, nearly every time pollsters ask whether voters support a well-explained restriction on guns, they do. And it’s not just background checks, registration and licensing, Americans favor a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, they want to keep guns out of the hands of spousal abusers and the dangerously mentally ill, they want to require gun owners to store guns where children can’t get access, and they think penalties should be increased on those who sell guns illegally.

Pollsters are asking irrelevant, obsolete questions and are rarely asking about policy specifics beyond background checks. (When was the last time you read a poll about gun licensing?) Let’s persuade them to open their minds.

Second, we should work to make gun nuttiness into a political liability. Pro-gun lawmakers think there’s no downside to embracing extremism, so they do. Conservative congressmen and legislators are far to the right on guns compared to where they were in the 1990s. (Remember, Jim and Sarah Brady were Republicans.) They’re way outside the mainstream of public opinion.

Lots of candidates would say that every American has a constitutional right to own a machine gun. Lots would say that existing restrictions on gun purchases should be rolled back. Lots more would attack any law enforcement agency that dares to enforce gun laws. These are wildly unpopular opinions, but voters have no idea their representatives hold them.

Let us tell the voters. Nowadays it is quite easy for an anti-violence activist to encourage candidates to say crazy things. Asked a nutty gun question, right-wing candidates will likely assume the questioner is a fellow extremist and respond accordingly. We need to film those answers and put them up on the web.

Lawmakers who support the NRA are used to pretending moderation in general audiences and whipping up their base when they think nobody is listening, (like Romney and his “47 percent” comment). Let us expose the extremists and make everyone understand that there is only one side that is “moderate” on guns—us.

Third, we should put ballot initiatives on as many state ballots as possible. While lawmakers are scared of the NRA, voters aren’t. Extremists’ threats don’t work on average citizens. So we can win by letting the voters decide.

You may already know that in 2014 when voters in Washington had the chance to decide State Initiative 594 to apply background checks to all gun sales, the Initiative won by 59-to-41 percent. But most politicians and political consultants are astonished to learn that commonsense gun measures have a long history of winning ballot initiatives. In 1988, Maryland Question 6, a rather complicated ban on Saturday Night Specials, won by 58-to-42 percent. In 1990, Florida Proposition 2, the “Cool-It Florida” 3-day waiting period, won by 84-to-16 percent. In 2000, Oregon Measure 5, fixing the gun show loophole, won by 62-to-38 percent and Colorado Amendment 22, also fixing the gun show loophole, won by 70-to-30 percent.

This strategy can not only enact important gun safety laws in many states, it can force the NRA to divert resources away from electing ultra-conservative candidates. Our policies will surely win and their candidates will be more likely to lose.

What are we waiting for?