The Sept. 16 rampage by a lone gunman at the Washington Navy Yard, which left 13 dead, has again focused attention on America’s gun laws. To see how thoroughly gun politics is entwined with gun culture, look no further than Colorado. In a proxy war between gun-rights and pro-regulation forces, two Democratic state legislators who backed successful gun legislation lost recall elections. The results confirm the battle for sensible gun regulation will be a long one.
According to a poll of one of the Colorado districts, voters supported expanded background checks by 68 percent to 27 percent, while they split 47 percent to 47 percent on the restrictions on high-capacity magazines. As in the nation at large, public opinion in Colorado in support of gun regulation proved broad but insufficiently deep. As long as gun-rights proponents remain a fiercely committed minority and gun-regulation proponents a largely passive majority, the minority will remain competitive. (Disclosure: Mayors Against Illegal Guns, co-founded by New York Mayor and Bloomberg LP owner Michael Bloomberg, supports gun regulation and backed both candidates in the Colorado race.)
Resistance to regulation emanates increasingly from a culture that places guns at the center of an individualistic ideology of self-defense, one reinforced by marketing language about securing “tactical” superiority over the “enemy.” There may be no arguments to sway the true believers, many of whom combine intense loyalty to a mythic American past with an unsettled fear of the American future. But the Colorado losses confirm that supporters of gun regulation have far to go in convincing many voters in the middle.
Previous public safety campaigns, such as those on the necessity of seat belts or the dangers of tobacco, took decades to win. In both cases, victory depended on the collection of data and the dissemination of information that demonstrated, overwhelmingly, the public health costs associated with two iconic American activities.
Gun-reform advocates face a similarly long battle. But they lack a sufficient body of research on the relationship between guns and public safety. This is no accident. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government researchers have been thwarted by a legislative directive that prohibits funding to “advocate or promote gun control.” President Barack Obama has sought to mitigate the damage through executive action, but it’s Congress that controls the nation’s purse.
Research won’t resolve the cultural conflicts that predate the republic, but it will put the old debates on newer, more solid ground. Given the deep animosity of the National Rifle Association to credible research, proponents of sensible gun regulation can distinguish themselves by pushing for more and better research on the health and safety effects of guns.
Let the research show what it will. And then fashion the arguments accordingly.