The tragic shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School have unleashed a torrent of public discussion and legislative proposals on gun control. Nationally, however, unless this debate can be framed as more than a fight about gun rights, it seems unlikely that this will result in much meaningful change. That’s because, given the state of our American psyche today, mind control trumps gun control.
That’s not true just for gun lovers. It’s also true for the general public as well. A poll conducted by TIME/CNN/ORC International on Jan. 14-15 revealed fairly strong support for a variety of gun control measures including:
92 percent background checks for gun purchases at a gun store
69 percent required gun registration
58 percent ban on high-capacity clips
56 percent ban on assault weapons
54 percent putting armed guards in every school
In contrast, more survey respondents (48 percent) agreed with the positions of the NRA than disagreed (42 percent). The only measure that the NRA agrees with completely and advocates for is “putting armed guards in every school.” Thus, this poll discloses the cognitive dissonance of the public on the gun control issue. While it leans toward more control — especially after violent incidents, in general it is more laissez faire.
That’s because gun control is not a compelling “wedge” issue for the vast majority of the public. Eighteen percent of the survey respondents said it was not a “major issue” and 62 percent said is was “just one of many factors” in their voting decisions.
It is important to note that the attitudes of the public regarding gun control have changed dramatically over the past two decades. The Pew Research Center has been tracking opinions on gun control since 1993. In that year, 57 percent of the public felt it was “more important to control gun ownership” and 34 percent felt it was “more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns.” In subsequent polls until 2008, those seeing “controlling gun ownership” as more important ranged from a high of 66 percent to a low of 54 percent.
Since April 2009, however, there has been almost an equal divide among those prioritizing gun control and those prioritizing protecting gun rights. In April 2012, before the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., the opinions were 45 percent for gun control and 49 percent for gun rights. After the shooting, in a July survey, it was 47 percent for gun control and 46 percent for gun rights.
Almost immediately after the Newtown incident in a December 2012 survey, the opinion divide was 49 percent for gun control and 42 percent for gun rights. In a Pew survey conducted in January of this year, the divide was approximately the same: 51 percent for gun control and 45 percent for gun rights.
While those percentages seem close and tilting toward more control, the most recent Pew Research Center study revealed a huge “activism” gap. The Center report on its findings notes “Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of those who say gun rights should be the priority have contributed money to an organization that takes a position on gun policy, compared with just 5 percent of those who prioritize gun control.” People who favor gun rights are also about twice as likely as gun control supporters to have contacted a public official about gun policy (15 percent vs. 8 percent).”
Here is the bottom line: Gun rights are top of mind for a much larger percentage of the American public than gun control. And those folks put their money and mouths where their minds are — in a big way.
As Geoffrey Stone observes in a Huffington Post blog, “The nation’s largest and most potent anti-gun control organization, the National Rifle Association, increased its annual revenue to the present by approximately 400 percent. It now has an annual operating budget of approximately $300 million and 4.3 million dues-paying members.” This compares to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s annual budget of $6 million and 30,000 dues paying members.
Given these enormous differences in financing and in “share of mind,” is there anything that can be done to level the playing field. One thing that we think could be helpful as a starting point, as we said at the outset of this blog, would be to frame this problem differently.
The re-examination of our gun laws is long over due. We think it is a serious mistake, however, to approach this as a gun control issue only.
In our opinion, we need to look at it from a broader systems perspective as one of enhancing public safety by preventing and reducing gun violence. Limiting our analysis and inquiry to gun control simplifies a very complex problem and makes it merely a confrontation between the pro-gun folks and the anti-gun folks.
Both sides will trot out their heaviest weapons and we either will or will not get stricter gun control regulations. Whichever side wins, if this ends up being just about gun control, the public loses.
We need to examine all of the factors that contribute to violence with weapons including access to and types of guns, mental health, insufficient security, and socioeconomic conditions. Then, we should come up with a comprehensive and multidimensional legislative solution that maximizes the potential for solving this problem in a holistic manner.
A broad range of measures have been implemented with regard to the ownership and use of automobiles. These include but are not restricted to: minimum age for drivers, training requirements for drivers, testing for licenses, different kinds of licenses depending on the vehicle and the type of use; speed limits, safety belts, vehicle quality and pollution emission standards. These measures are not focused on “automobile control’ but on “traveling safety.” We need to employ a similar logic to create a robust “safety-centered” approach when it comes to guns.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every major civil aviation accident in the U.S. and significant accidents in other modes of transportation — railroad, highway, marine and pipeline. The NTSB does an independent investigation on each accident to determine “probable cause(s)” and then develops recommendations for preventing future accidents. The NTSB looks at three broad potential categories of causative factors to make its determinations: user, equipment, and conditions. We should be applying a similar comprehensive perspective to analyze and develop an ongoing program for enhancing public safety by preventing and reducing gun violence.
The second amendment to the United States Constitution states, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” We honor that right as we do all those rights enumerated in the nation’s Constitution.
We also recognize, as it is so eloquently stated in our country’s Declaration of Independence, that we are “all endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Our governments were instituted to protect those rights.
Enhancing public safety by preventing gun violence respects the legitimate right to bear arms while protecting our “unalienable rights.” It moves this beyond the false choices poised by gun rights and gun control advocates into the arena for full consideration where open rather than closed minds may prevail.