Politics & Policy

Gun Control: A Movement Without Followers


In the year since the Tucson (Ariz.) massacre, in which a Glock-wielding gunman killed six people and wounded 13, the most famous victim, Gabrielle Giffords, has recovered admirably. The Arizona representative has co-authored a memoir and made appearances in the well of the House of Representatives and on national television. What Giffords and her fellow Democrats have not done is use the Tucson bloodshed to achieve tougher gun control laws.

The inaction, especially President Barack Obama’s passivity on the topic, demonstrates that gun control has expired as a national political issue. If Democrats can’t sell stiffer restrictions after a midday attack on a congresswoman, when can they?

Consider the fate of bills introduced in the wake of Tucson by Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York and Senator Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey. The Democratic gun control stalwarts would prohibit the civilian sale or possession of pistol magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Under this rule, the Tucson shooter, Jared Loughner, would not have been able to stroll into a gun store and lawfully purchase the new 33-round magazine that allowed him to fire so many bullets before he was subdued.

Some might argue that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms would not be threatened by an absence of 33-round magazines. The National Rifle Assn. nevertheless opposes the legislation on the debatable theory that it would lead to a slippery slope ending in mass gun confiscation. In any event, the McCarthy-Lautenberg proposal didn’t have anywhere near enough votes.

Meanwhile, another bill has had more success. In November the Republican House approved a measure that would require states to respect concealed carry permits issued by other, less restrictive states; it now awaits action in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where its fate is uncertain. “It’s shameful, as we approach the anniversary of the Tucson tragedy, that the only bill Congress has acted on would make it easier to carry concealed guns across state lines,” says Dennis Henigan, who heads the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington.

Truth is, even if the McCarthy-Lautenberg bill were enacted, it wouldn’t matter much. The law would grandfather in large-capacity magazines lawfully possessed on the day it took effect. Since there are already millions of plus-10 mags in private hands, banning new ones wouldn’t seriously hinder a determined criminal.

Notably, Giffords hasn’t spoken out in favor of tougher gun control. Before she was shot, the Second Amendment proponent proudly said she owned a Glock 19, the same model that nearly killed her. (A press aide to the congresswoman did not respond to a request for comment.) As voters’ tolerance for firearm ownership has grown in recent years, gun control activists have seemed increasingly irrelevant. The Brady group announced that the front people for its Jan. 8 candle-lighting commemoration of the Tucson shooting would include cable talk show host Reverend Al Sharpton and comedian Lewis Black.

Giffords, Obama, and other Democrats can read polls showing diminished support for gun control. In late October, Gallup reported that a record-low 26 percent of Americans favor a ban on civilian possession of handguns, down from 60 percent when Gallup first asked the question in 1959. By a 60-35 margin, Gallup said, “Americans’ preference regarding gun laws is generally that the government enforce existing laws more strictly and not pass new laws.”

The Supreme Court, too, is doing its part to deter broader gun control. In landmark rulings in 2008 and 2010, the justices clarified that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep a handgun at home, striking down local bans in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

One thing that may help explain the shift in public opinion and the high court’s willingness to limit gun control is the good news of falling crime rates. After soaring for 30 years beginning in the early 1960s, violent crime in America has decreased markedly since 1993. In December, the FBI reported that the rate of murder and other violent crimes fell again in the first half of 2011, by 6.4 percent, compared with the same period in 2010. When crime rates were rising, many politicians and judges saw tougher gun laws as a reasonable response. The connection became more dubious in an era of increasingly secure streets.

It isn’t entirely clear why crime has diminished. Higher rates of incarceration for repeat offenders and a relative decrease in the population of teenagers who commit a disproportionate share of offenses may partly explain it. New York City presents a pertinent, if inconclusive, case study. The city’s gun laws haven’t changed; its pockets of severe poverty remain. But its murder rate has declined to levels common in the late 1950s. Criminologist Franklin E. Zimring argues in a new book, The City That Became Safe, that New York appears to have benefited from improvements in policing, especially the NYPD’s use of statistical analysis to target violent neighborhoods. Rather than argue about which guns or magazines should be banned, Zimring’s findings suggest politicians might have better success by providing resources to crime-prone communities that would allow them to emulate New York’s progress.

As a component of such an anti-crime package, lawmakers could include improvements to the existing gun laws that Americans tell pollsters they support. Even the NRA agrees, for example, that guns should not be sold to people found to have serious mental problems. Yet many states fail to provide mental health records to the federal computerized background-check system. Twenty-three states have shown “major failures” in complying, according to a Nov. 15 report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which is co-chaired by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, publisher of this magazine). Four states—Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, and Rhode Island—have submitted no records at all.

Closing gaps in the background-check system would likely have only a modest effect on crime rates. But for gun control advocates struggling to stay relevant, the push for such changes represents a noteworthy shift—and a concession to reality. Having decisively lost the decades-old political and cultural argument over whether Americans should have the right to pack heat, they need to adapt to meet the demands of a public that wants to reduce the number of crimes—not the number of guns.

This article is adapted from Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, by Paul M. Barrett (Crown).

The bottom line: In 1959, 60 percent of Americans believed civilian ownership of handguns should be banned. Today, it’s 26 percent.

Barrett_190
Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, which tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador, will be published by Crown in September 2014.

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