"A uniquely American tragedy“: The staggering myths about gun control

The gun lobby’s disproportionate political power will never be overcome until these fallacies are destroyed

Published July 2, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

 (Reuters/Brian Blanco)
(Reuters/Brian Blanco)

A tortured mythology

The issue of guns in America causes people in other parts of the developed world to look at our country and shake their heads. They just don’t get it. They don’t understand why so many Americans have such passion for their guns. They don’t understand why gun control is such a contentious issue. Most of all, they don’t understand how America can tolerate its chronic carnage of deaths and injuries from gunfire, particularly among our children and particularly after the horror of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012 in which 20 first graders and six adults lost their lives. American children ages five to fourteen are eighteen times more likely to die of a gun homicide and eleven times more likely to die of a gun suicide than children in twenty-two other high-income countries.

Across all those high-income nations, the United States accounts for more than 90 percent of the gun deaths of children under fifteen years of age. President George W. Bush, of all people, once noted that an American teenager is more likely to die from a gunshot than from all natural causes of death combined. God bless America.  Particularly her children.

This uniquely American tragedy is often viewed from a political perspective. At every level of government, a powerful lobby, the National Rifle Association, disproportionately influences gun policy. The Washington Post has called the NRA “arguably the most powerful lobbying organization in the nation’s capital and certainly one of the most feared.” A 2005 poll of congressional “insiders” by the "National Journal" found that Democrats rated the NRA the “most effective” interest group on Capitol Hill; Republicans ranked it number two. One “insider” hastened to add: “Effective does not necessarily mean ethical.” In fact, a 2006 Harris Poll found the NRA one of the most recognizable, and least trusted, public policy organizations in the nation.

What is truly astounding is that the NRA is able to block the enactment of legislation that is spectacularly popular with the American people. Reinstating the ten-year ban on AK-47s, UZIs, and other military-style assault weapons, enacted in 1994, enjoyed the support of 78 percent of the American people, with only 16 percent opposed, when Congress, under NRA pressure, allowed it to lapse. Despite surveys taken after the Newtown shooting, showing almost 90 percent public support for requiring background checks for all gun sales,  legislation to extend the Brady Bill background checks to private sales failed to muster the necessary sixty Senate votes to cut off debate; the legislation never even reached the floor of the House of Representatives. Even mandatory registration of handguns has the support of 75 percent of Americans, yet it has no serious support in Congress.

Gun owners and non-owners alike favor proposals to strengthen gun laws. A poll conducted by Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz showed that 74 percent of current and former NRA members, as well as 87 percent of other gun owners, support universal background checks.  A majority of self-identified NRA members supports handgun registration and mandatory safety training before purchasing a firearm. These are positions vehemently opposed by the NRA’s leadership.

The NRA’s power, of course, can be overcome. The Brady Bill was enacted into law in 1993 and is still stopping criminals from buying guns from gun dealers. Yet even the successful struggle to enact the Brady Bill can be seen as an illustration of the NRA’s clout. Though the bill had public support consistently in the 85–90 percent range, it took seven years to become law.

The triumph of bumper-sticker logic

Shortly after I began my tenure as a lawyer and advocate for the Brady gun control group, I started to notice a peculiar repetitiveness in my opponents’ arguments. Whether it was on radio or TV talk shows, panel discussions, or speeches with audience Q&A, there was a striking similarity in the substance of the arguments, and even the language, used by my opponents.

Over and over again, I would hear “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” I would hear “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” I would hear “An armed society is a polite society.” I had seen these sayings on bumper stickers for years, but I discovered that my opponents actually argued in these terms. Even when these exact phrases weren’t used, the thoughts they express were conveyed in other words. In more scholarly settings, critics of gun regulation would dress up their arguments in the arcane language of academia and in mountains of statistics, but their basic claims could, to a remarkable degree, be boiled down to the same themes I had heard on countless talk shows.

For gun control advocates, the sad fact is that the bumper-sticker arguments of the National Rifle Association and its allies have an impact on the gun debate that needs to be acknowledged. I am not suggesting that these arguments cause most people to oppose specific gun control proposals; as already noted, a wide range of proposed restrictions on guns has broad public support. However, because the arguments sound like they have more than a kernel of truth, they have had an important long-term effect on the intensity with which the public favors gun control, particularly as it is reflected in its level of activism on the issue and its voting behavior.

Years of public-opinion polls on guns suggest that support for gun control is a mile wide and an inch deep. People will tell a pollster that they favor a host of gun restrictions, but surveys show a far smaller percentage will act on their support or will make it a major factor in determining their support or opposition to a particular candidate for office. Surveys show that opponents of gun control are far more likely than gun control supporters to give money, contact a public official, express an opinion on a social networking site, or sign a petition on the gun issue.

Although there is little doubt that the level of gun control activism increased after Newtown, surveys still indicate that gun-rights supporters are more likely to say they are “single-issue” voters than are gun control supporters. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, 40 percent of voters who want gun laws to be “less strict” say they would only vote for a candidate who shares their views on gun control, whereas only 21 percent of voters who want gun laws to be “more strict” say they would make their election choices solely on the gun issue.  A 2014 Yale University survey showed an even more dramatic gap: among voters who thought gun laws should be less strict, 71 percent said they would never vote for a political candidate who did not share their position on gun control, compared with just 34 percent of those who support stricter gun laws.

This gap is ameliorated to some extent by the fact that far more Americans favor making our gun laws more strict than favor weakening them, by a margin of 55 percent to 11 percent, with 33 percent wanting them kept as they are, according to a 2015 Gallup poll.  Nevertheless, this intensity gap strikes fear in the hearts of politicians who perceive that, particularly in swing districts or states, where a relatively small number of committed single-issue voters can make the difference in a close election.

As veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart explained, “You can win the vast majority of the public, but it becomes a nonvoting issue for them. And the people opposed to gun control make it their single most important issue. That’s the challenge.”  President Obama, expressing frustration that Congress would not act to strengthen gun laws during his administration, recognized the “single-issue” problem. Indeed, he declared that he would no longer support candidates who do not support “common-sense gun reform” and challenged other gun-law supporters to join him in that pledge. This continuing intensity gap may well be related to the resonance of at least some of the NRA’s oft-used bumper-sticker arguments.

Let’s take, for example, the declaration “Guns don’t kill people, People kill people.” The suggestion that the violence that has long plagued our society is rooted in the evil that lurks in our souls is effectively used to marginalize, as relatively insignificant, issues related to the specific instrumentalities of violence.  The slogan has been remarkably effective in diverting attention from the issue of gun regulation to the endless, and often fruitless, search for more “fundamental” causes of criminal violence.

To take another example, a great paradox of opinion polling on gun issues is that the public consistently supports enactment of gun legislation, even though it does not think it will be effective. In 1994, the year following the enactment of the broadly popular Brady Bill and the year the assault weapon ban passed with overwhelming public support, one poll showed that only 34 percent of the American people believed that gun control laws would reduce violent crime, while 62 percent said they would not.  Thirteen years later, an ABC News poll revealed similar attitudes; although 61 percent of those surveyed supported stricter gun laws, only 27 percent thought they would do “a lot” to reduce gun violence.”

A CNN poll in 2015 found that 58 percent thought it unlikely that expanded background checks would keep guns out of the hands of convicted criminals.  In other words, at some basic level, the public is convinced that “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” This belief cannot help but diminish the intensity of public support for further gun restrictions and the likelihood that such support will be translated into activism and voting behavior. It is difficult to motivate people to work and vote for gun control if they are not convinced it will make a difference.

The gun advocates’ bumper-sticker messages, when examined critically, reveal themselves as mythology compounded by convoluted reasoning. Yet they continue to exert an outsized influence on public attitudes toward guns and gun control. Unless these messages are challenged and discredited, our national paralysis in addressing gun violence is likely to persist.

Are logic and evidence irrelevant?

Some may think this discussion reflects an embarrassing level of naiveté about the politics of gun control. If the barrier to progress is the continued fear of the NRA’s raw political power, they will say, it will never be enough to show that the NRA’s arguments make no sense. As one columnist said about the gun control debate, “This dispute isn’t about logic anymore than the stem-cell dispute is about science. It’s about the power of an interest group to impede what looks to most of us like genuine public progress.”  Let me be clear: I am not arguing that destroying the NRA’s mythology will be sufficient to overcome the NRA’s political influence. I believe, however, that the gun lobby’s political power will never be overcome until these myths are destroyed. Political power is not unconnected to ideas.

The source of the NRA’s disproportionate political power is not simply its money and the intensity of its supporters’ beliefs; it is also its effective communication of several simple themes that resonate with ordinary Americans and function to convince them that gun control has little to do with improving the quality of their lives.

The connection between politics and ideas on the gun issue is nicely demonstrated in the 2006 book "Take It Back" by Democratic Party strategists James Carville and Paul Begala. Carville and Begala were solidly in the camp of Democrats who believe their party has been damaged by its identification with the gun control issue. They argued that Democrats should “defuse” the gun issue, essentially by agreeing with the NRA that we should simply enforce existing gun laws, but not pass any new ones.

Those who believe that exposing the gun lobby’s bumper-sticker fallacies would have no effect on the politics of gun control should consider this passage from the Carville-Begala book on the issue of whether the Democrats should push to require background checks on gun sales at gun shows:

Sponsored by Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and John McCain (R-AZ), the bill would require that people who buy guns at gun shows pass the same background check required for purchases made in stores. Okay. Sounds reasonable. But what is the political cost-benefit analysis? A study by the Clinton Justice Department showed that just 1.7 percent of criminals who used guns in the commission of a crime obtained their gun from a gun show. By extending the Brady Bill to catch such a small percentage of transactions, Democrats risk inflaming and alienating millions of voters who might otherwise be open to voting Democratic. But once guns are in the mix, once someone believes his gun rights are threatened, he shuts down.

Notice the question: What is the political cost-benefit analysis? What Carville and Begala are saying is that gun control simply doesn’t do enough good, as a policy matter, to be worth the political cost of advocating it. Presumably, the “political cost-benefit analysis” would be different if they were convinced that stricter gun laws would really save thousands of innocent lives and prevent untold suffering.

Dig beneath the surface of this passage and it is easy to uncover two of the NRA’s favorite myths. The cavalier dismissal of the need for gun-show background checks is a variation on the theme of “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” It turns out that, on the issue of gun shows, the Carville-Begala analysis is highly misleading. They cite a Justice Department survey of federal firearms offenders showing that only 1.7 percent of the offenders said they got their guns at gun shows. This ignores the well-established fact that many gun criminals buy their guns from gun traffickers who, in turn, bought their inventory at gun shows. Many criminals simply don’t know that their guns originated at gun shows. Carville and Begala overlook the joint Justice-ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) study of federal trafficking investigations showing “a disturbing picture of gun shows as a venue for criminal activity and a source of firearms used in crimes.”

The reference by Carville and Begala to gun owners feeling that their “gun rights are threatened” by background checks implicitly invokes the classic “slippery slope” argument. Carville and Begala obviously see some validity to the idea that gun show background checks will lead to serious invasions of the right to bear arms. The political conclusion reached by Carville and Begala follows directly from their policy conclusion about the impact of gun control.

It seems clear that the persuasive power of the Carville-Begala political argument to fellow Democrats likely was enhanced because the NRA’s bumper-sticker logic has managed to sink in to our collective consciousness about the relationship between guns and violence. Conversely, exposing the NRA’s mythology as transparently empty and dangerous would have made it more difficult for Democrats to “defuse” the gun issue by embracing the NRA’s view. On the gun issue, as with other issues, politics and policy are connected.

In December of 2003, former President Clinton, speaking at the Brady Bill’s ten-year anniversary celebration in Washington, DC, cogently addressed the way the gun debate is conducted in this country and how it impacts our nation’s ability to make greater progress in preventing injury and death from gunfire. He said he was always struck by the disconnect between the gun lobby’s arguments and what is happening in real life. “This is all about getting people to stop thinking,” he said, “ignoring the human consequences of a practical problem.” He went on: “But the consequences here are quite severe, because the landscape of our recent history is littered with the bodies of people that couldn’t be protected, under sensible gun laws that wouldn’t have had a lick of impact on the hunters and sportsmen of this country.”

I was in the audience that day and I was struck with his observation that “this is all about getting people to stop thinking.” This is, in fact, the impact of the pro-gun slogans. They do not stimulate thoughtful, rational discussion of the “human consequences of a practical problem.” They end thoughtful, rational discussion and replace it with clever catchphrases in service to an immovable ideology. I think President Clinton was getting at the disturbing truth about the gun debate in America. Our nation does a bad job of thinking about guns. Until we get the reasoning right, we will do little to address the “human consequences” of gun violence. It is no exaggeration to say that our nation’s gun policy is paralyzed by a series of fallacies—arguments that appear sound on first hearing, but crumble when subject to careful thought and analysis.

Although exposing these fallacies is necessarily an exercise in reason, it should not be coldly intellectual. It is my hope that the task will awaken the same emotions in the reader that it did in me: Sadness. Then anger. When President Obama unveiled a series of executive actions on guns three years after the Newtown massacre, he reminded the nation that it was a mass killing of first graders. “Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” said the president, wiping away tears. It should, in fact, make all of us angry. It should lead us to realize that too many of our fellow citizens have perished or been severely injured because the pro-gun fallacies have held sway for far too long. They have excused inaction and justified misguided policies. Because gun violence is, literally, a life-or-death issue, the NRA’s tortured mythology has cost innocent lives. Too many have died for us to tolerate it any longer.

Adapted from “'Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People': And Other Myths About Guns and Gun Control" by Dennis A. Henigan (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.

By Dennis A. Henigan

Dennis A. Henigan is director of legal and policy analysis at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and a former vice president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. For over twenty years, he was a leading advocate for stronger gun laws. Under his direction, Brady Center lawyers recovered millions of dollars in damages for gun violence victims, as well as winning precedent-setting court decisions on the liability of gun sellers.  “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People” And Other Myths About Guns and Gun Control  (Beacon Press) goes on sale July 26thand is available for sale in e-book now.

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