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CAS Prof on Why Gun Control Won’t Happen, Again

Culture wars run deep in firearms debate

Gun Control, Sandy Hook Elementary School Newtown Connecticut School Shooting, United States Mass Shootings

Volunteer firefighters at a makeshift memorial at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, December 15, 2012, in Newtown, Conn., where the day before 20 children and 6 adults were massacred by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who then killed himself. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Since April 2007, 96 people have died in mass shootings in the United States. Last Friday, 20 children were among the 26 killed when a gunman went on a rampage in a Connecticut elementary school. The massacre, like four others in the past six years, engendered much talk about gun control. But gun control legislation is much easier to talk about than it is to enact. Gallup polls tell us that 45 percent of Americans say they have a gun in their home and that 50 percent say they are happy with existing gun laws. The United States, the New York Times reports, has more guns per capita than any other country and the vast majority of them are legally bought. In fact, Mother Jones magazine’s Guide to Mass Shooting in the United States, published Friday, reports that three quarters of the 139 guns used by killers in 62 mass murders since 1982 were obtained legally.

Last July, in the shadow of a shooting that killed 12 people and wounded 59 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., BU Today talked with Graham Wilson, a College of Arts & Sciences professor and chair of political science, about why mass killings fail to provoke a persuasive argument for greater gun control. First published July 25, the interview by Susan Seligson appears below a current one, with Wilson’s amended thoughts about how last week’s massacre may change things. Or not.

BU Today: When you spoke to BU Today after the Aurora killings, you had become cynical about politicians’ response to recurring massacres. Do you think this most recent massacre will change things?

Wilson: We’ve had a truly horrendous massacre in Connecticut and a near miss the same week on the other side of the country [a mall shooting in Oregon on December 12 that claimed the lives of two people and the gunman]. The most probable outcome is that a month from now the victims will have been forgotten and the National Rifle Association will remain in control.

What would it take to prevent this from happening?

A major push by a billionaire such as George Soros aligned with a mass movement of outraged citizens, plus a prominent politician willing to show courage on the issue. Even with all of this, the probability is no change, but that’s what it would take to give change a chance.

Is it likely that President Obama’s second election will give him the confidence to really press for greater gun control?

Maybe. But I am sure that his advisors are reminding him that he has plenty of other fish to fry with Congress, such as the fiscal cliff. However, he does seem genuinely upset by these events, and there is some possibility that he could adopt the issue.

Are there gun control measures that work elsewhere that the United States should consider?

We know that there are measures that have worked elsewhere to reduce (though unfortunately not end) gun violence; Australia provided an example by outlawing possession of guns that have no civilian use, and further, buying up guns to reduce the number out there. As many commentators have said since Friday, we don’t abandon attempts to make cars safer because we know that we can never end automobile accidents totally.

Is there any part of our last discussion that no longer applies to this issue?

I’m wondering if your bloggers who called me a communist or a liberal (I am not sure which is supposed to be worse) for saying that our policies were bound to result in more tragedies have had a moment of doubt or self-criticism in the last 72 hours. How many more deaths will it take to convince them that we have a problem? Do they really think that the difference between the United States and the rest of the advanced world is simply that we have more crazy people? I wonder, too, if the members of the Supreme Court who in a striking example of judicial activism overturned long-established interpretations of the Second Amendment, thus making it harder to regulate guns, have slept easily at night?

The conversation below took place in the aftermath of the Colorado shooting on July 20, 2012.

BU Today: President Obama was in Aurora, Colo., early this week fulfilling his duty as what the Washington Post calls “healer-in-chief.” But can he avoid an urgent discussion of increasing gun controls, at the very least restoring some kind of ban on automatic assault weapons?

Wilson: I have become totally cynical about politicians’ response to the recurring massacres. They say they are sorry for the victims and their families, deplore the event, and do nothing to prevent a recurrence. Our national policy is to make incredibly powerful guns available to the mentally disturbed, so we have to accept terrible massacres like this on a recurring basis as the inevitable consequence of the choices our elected politicians have made.

What is at stake for politicians who speak out in favor of increased gun controls?

Any politician with the guts to suggest even the mildest restriction on even the most lethal of guns will incur the enduring enmity of the gun lobby—notably the National Rifle Association (NRA).

How do you think the Aurora tragedy will affect politics in Colorado, a major battleground state?

Minimally. All the politicians will say how terrible this is, how sorry they are for victims and families, and do nothing to prevent high-powered semiautomatic weapons from being made freely available to deeply disturbed people. And of course the Roberts Court has reinterpreted the Second Amendment to make it harder for any politician with the bravery to act to do so.

Why do you think Michael Bloomberg is the only politician who immediately demanded action on gun control in the wake of the Aurora shootings?

Because he is mayor of New York City, where the power of the NRA is least.

Who do you believe is responsible for the prevailing all-or-nothing reasoning for dismissing gun control, the sense that if the restrictions aren’t foolproof they shouldn’t exist at all?

The NRA has made it its policy that everyone should have access to all sorts of firearms, including the most lethal. Politicians of both parties bow down to and worship the NRA. Note how 10 or more years ago, the massacres repeatedly prompted some calls for gun control. As your question suggests, nowadays we just accept that “stuff happens” and a few dozen people get shot.

Gallup polls over the last two decades show that fewer than half of Americans favor stricter laws governing the sales of firearms and ammunition, with only slight blips in the wake of the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres. To what do you attribute support for weapons that appear to have no purpose beyond firing the most lethal shots in the shortest time?

I don’t think most people have any sense of how frightening it would be if well-intentioned, minimally trained citizens started shooting off guns like the AK-47, even in self-defense. I think it is partly a matter of partisan politics; being a Republican nowadays means resisting any gun control. But I think it is also part of the wider decline in trust in government. As we don’t trust government to protect us, we better get an Uzi.

Americans live with regulations governing all aspects of our lives, yet it seems only gun control sets off slippery slope arguments about a totalitarian state. What is the gun lobby’s role in promoting this argument?

Americans used to support gun control; there is nothing historically or culturally determined about the current situation.

How did the Second Amendment become a blanket justification for opposition of all gun controls?

For most of our history, the Second Amendment was interpreted as not providing for an individual right to own guns. The Roberts Court, as part of its judicial activism, reversed 75 years of clear precedent in deciding that the Second Amendment did provide an individual right to guns. But even the Roberts Court would agree that, like all constitutional rights, the right to own guns is subject to reasonable restriction. Ironically, the Roberts Court would deny the right to own weapons that might be useful in resisting tyrannical government, such as antitank missiles.

Why is the gun control debate so emotionally charged, and in what ways does it divide the nation?

An important element in this is the culture wars. Passionate advocates of widespread gun ownership tend to oppose abortion rights, environmental protection, affirmative action, and so on. We are two countries. Our cultural and political divides are deeper and more passionate than in any of the advanced democracies—France, the UK, Germany, et cetera—that I know. Guns are part of the culture wars.

In spite of Big Tobacco’s denial of the link between smoking and early death, the government is imposing more restrictions on the sale of cigarettes and smoking is  increasingly taboo. Why doesn’t the number of gun deaths stir a similar broad level of outrage?

Because gun lovers reasonably say that criminals will always get guns. Even with effective restrictions, this country is so awash in guns it would take decades to retrieve them. And every year that goes by means that even more and more terrifying weapons are widely distributed.

It may well be that nothing can be done that is effective. The NRA’s effective advocacy of having all types of weapon readily available has created a situation from which it would be incredibly difficult to extricate ourselves. We are awash in firearms more suitable to warfare than self-defense or hunting.

26 Comments
Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

26 Comments on CAS Prof on Why Gun Control Won’t Happen, Again

  • Eleutherius on 12.17.2012 at 3:10 am

    You’re correct in your assessment that the NRA still has a huge amount of clout. But that isn’t the half of the story. What will really prevent any meaningful gun control in America is the existence of millions of radicals, some NRA members, some not, who will defy or otherwise effectively circumvent any and all unconstitutional and unreasonable gun control laws enacted. Guns in America will never be “controlled.”

  • Kyle on 12.17.2012 at 5:53 am

    Disgustingly political article again. Embarrassing this article and professor is associated with BU, advocating a billion dollar campaign by George Soros to implement Gun Control? Is this guy a professor or an internet troll?

    • Josh on 12.17.2012 at 8:23 am

      Internet troll?

      The same could be said for those who fling mud at anyone attempting to have a serious discussion about the gun violence issue that clearly exists in this country.

      • Sheppard on 12.17.2012 at 5:33 pm

        Violence is a problem in every country.

        Did you know that crime rates are lower than ever since the crime spike of the 1980s? Did you know that the UK, where all guns are banned to citizens, has a higher rate of violent crime than the US? Did you know that over 70% of gun violence victims in America have criminal records?

        Of course you didn’t. You’re too wrapped up in the myth that “guns are bad, m’kay?”

        • Alex on 12.17.2012 at 9:55 pm

          You said that violent crime rates in the U.S are lower than violent crime rates in the U.k. While this is true, you didn’t say anything about violent crimes where guns were used. In the United States, guns constitute a much higher percentage of violent crimes than in any other country. Therefore, it makes logical sense that gun regulation would have more of a positive effect in the United States than anywhere else, because more violent crimes involve guns in the United States than anywhere else.

    • Rich on 12.17.2012 at 9:35 am

      What a rediculous comment. Why is it embarrassing to state an opinion that is based in reality? This professor is just explaining the reality of the issue and what it would take to get an opposition moving. There is a reason why most news sources are cited as advocacy pieces… it is because they are.

      Is it any less embarrassing that an antagonistic comment from a pro-gun stance gets posted?

    • MoonBatman on 12.17.2012 at 12:42 pm

      Kyle, “neutrality” or “objectivity” in the face of tragedies like this is cowardly.

      “I’m wondering if your bloggers who called me a communist or a liberal (or troll) for saying that our policies were bound to result in more tragedies have had a moment of doubt or self-criticism in the last 72 hours. How many more deaths will it take to convince them that we have a problem? Do they really think that the difference between the United States and the rest of the advanced world is simply that we have more crazy people?”

      Wake the eff up, Kyle.

      • Sheppard on 12.17.2012 at 5:40 pm

        “How many more deaths will it take to conv-”

        Stop this.

        I’m sick and tired of the emotional arguments. These events are tragic, but to look at them as if they’re somehow epidemic is madness, pure and simple. Gun restrictions have been constantly relaxing nationwide since the 80s, and in that time, crime rates have gone down, and are now at the lowest since then.

        The left has zero realistic solutions, and no rational arguments.

  • AM on 12.17.2012 at 8:36 am

    Thank you BU Today for addressing this terrible problem. I agree with Professor Wilson that this issue requires significant political will, but that shouldn’t dishearten those of us who view gun control as a public health issue and who want to do something about it. There are many ways to get involved with this issue, whether it’s writing your congressman, joining or donating to the Brady Campaign, or just engaging in thoughtful discussion with people who still believe military weapons in civilian life make for a safer society. Great article.

    • Anon on 12.17.2012 at 11:25 am

      Please don’t encourage the Brady Campaign. They’re every bit as vitriolic and partisan as the NRA.

  • WILLIAM H KLEH, Overseer on 12.17.2012 at 8:52 am

    I assume that the University will be organizing in the near future a panel discussion, open to the entire BU community, and involving the leadership of the Schools of Law, Public Health, Theology, and other relevant disciplines, to focus on the major issues confronting our country in the wake of this horrible event. Please let me know when this is scheduled, and make the discussion broadly available over the Internet.

    • BU Person on 12.19.2012 at 4:32 pm

      I’m thrilled to know one of the BU Oveseers is reading and commenting on BU Today, and I hope that someone takes his suggestion seriously. I would avoid having Graham Wilson on the panel, though, since he seems so gloomy.

  • AP on 12.17.2012 at 10:03 am

    By focusing on gun control, we’re overlooking a much more serious problem: a lack of resources for the mentally ill people who pose a danger to society. If we look at these serious massacres, the biggest constant isn’t the presence of a gun, but the presence of a mentally ill person who others knew was dangerous, yet had no legal or medical recourse to force him/her into treatment.

    Instead of working to curtail the Constitutional rights of the many responsible, legal gun owners, we should work to look at why we have extended, by neglect, the right of the mentally ill to harm others.

    • Jim on 12.17.2012 at 4:44 pm

      There are enough people and resources in this country to focus on gun control and resources for the mentally ill simultaneously.

      Regardless, 60 people died in 2011 from mass shootings caused by the mentally ill. Meanwhile, over 9000 died from gun accidents or violence. Your basing the entirety of your gun control stance on less than 1% of the sample.

  • Anne on 12.17.2012 at 11:07 am

    Gun control is not the answer, but instead it is an attempt to treat a symptom, rather than the disease: evil. There are evil, evil people in this world, and all the “political will” in the universe is never going to be enough to stop certain individuals from perpetrating horrible acts of violence and degradation. Just look at what else was happening around the world on that same terrible day: in China, a man attacked a group of 22 children and 1 adult outside a primary school. Would stricter “knife control” have prevented that heinous act from happening? Unlikely. In fact, one could argue that had there been the presence of individuals with weapons of their own, maybe these attackers would have thought twice about doing what they did. There is a reason most of these deranged animals don’t go into police stations or military bases to wreck this havoc–instead, they look for easy, innocent targets.

    • anonymous on 12.17.2012 at 12:12 pm

      Anne, I agree that terrible acts will continue to happen no matter what laws are passed, but it’s noteworthy that in the China school attack, none of the children died. We may not be able to end acs of violence, but we can mitigate their impact and effect. Assault weapons allow violence to occur on a scale that we simply can no longer allow.

      • Sheppard on 12.17.2012 at 5:48 pm

        And yet the assault weapons ban that Clinton signed didn’t work.

        What makes you think trying the same thing again is going to produce a different result? With the amount of registered guns in America (270,000,000), we’re better off arming everyone so as few people as possible die.

        It works for Switzerland. Their government requires all adults, by law, to undergo gun training and carry a firearm whenever going outside their house. They have some of the lowest crime rates in all of Europe.

  • Anonymous on 12.17.2012 at 11:18 am

    Connecticut already has some of the tightest gun controls in the country, including an assault weapons ban. The last national assault weapons ban had no measurable impact on crime rates. Violent crime in the United States has been declining for decades and, despite some high-profile tragedies, 2012 is still looking to be a good year overall. We’ve already reached the peak of the potential benefit from tight controls over background checks and classroom training; instituting anything stricter is not going to help any more than the last time we tried it.

    The whole debate is a distraction from the root causes of violent crime. The majority of crime is not caused by people with mental illness, so I don’t want it to sound like I’m blaming a particular group of people who need help, but high-profile massacres and school shootings typically have been committed by some deranged people that somehow the system missed. Reforming the mental health system is a key in the puzzle, if not a solution for the larger problem of violent crime- though this too is already on the decline.

  • John on 12.17.2012 at 1:45 pm

    In 5 years, 96 people died tragically. In the same time period how many people died from smoking? 2,215,000. How many kids also took up smoking and are essentially going to be another statistic? We’re not focusing on controlling a substance that arguable has 0 societal benefits and a much larger toll on human life.

    • anon92 on 12.17.2012 at 3:48 pm

      Smoking is a choice. Being shot isn’t.

      • john on 12.18.2012 at 8:49 am

        “49,400 deaths per year from secondhand smoke exposure.” From CDC website.

        Secondhand smoke isn’t a choice either.

        My point is that everyone’s response now is reactionary to something that seems to be changing. Since we’re so used to smoking, no one cares anymore, yet it has a much larger impact. I’m not a gun nut by any stretch of the imagination however guns have more of a purpose than a cigarette. You can’t legislate away tragedies like this.

    • Jim on 12.17.2012 at 4:51 pm

      John, stay focused.

  • Richard Munsch on 12.21.2012 at 9:46 am

    What a bunch of hippie insanity.

    Better yet, ban alcohol. If you really want to save some people- go after something that wreaks havoc in the millions. Think of all the lost productivity, deaths, injuries, crime, abuse, and myriad other mayhem caused by ingesting a substance we absolutely don’t need. But wait- liberals (and others) gotta have their booze- no matter the social cost!

    There, we just applied the same logic to booze as hippies (the author) are/is now applying to guns. Look, no one is taking any guns away. It will never happen. Try it. You will be met with exactly the same success as the backers of prohibition. I love my guns. You love your booze, dope, gay sex etc…

    I will agree with one thing. We are definitely two countries. I would be ALL for splitting it in two.

    • jon on 12.28.2012 at 10:19 pm

      Alcohol is as embedded in our culture as guns, but it is controlled. You can’t drink and drive. You can’t make your own booze. And admirably, the Century Council of
      alcohol companies actually self-regulates themselves by volunteering to run don’t drink and drive ads, and by not targeting anyone under 25. In contrast the NRA only cares about selling more guns and accessories no matter what the cost in human life.
      Yes, we have 2 countries. A civilized one, and one populated by idiots like you.

  • Eric Hamilton on 12.24.2012 at 5:53 pm

    Everybody has a solution yet millions of us own legal firearms..I would never ever even think of using a firearm on another human being.What can you all say to this?I own literally well over 100 firearms.Not once in a angry huff have I ever reached for a firearm..And guess what there are many of us out there just like myself.Then you have the ones who will protect themselves with a firearm..Are they wrong?Nope Not in my opinion.People run others down with cars , use planes to kill thousands..Yep thousands ..Are planes the problem or is it the ones who are in control of them at the time? Firearms are tools and like many other objects or tools they are nothing on their own.A guy uses a butcher knife to injure 20 plus and knives are used in deadly crimes .Are they gonna be banned too? People think that removing firearms from our society is the solution.I disagree.I am NOT a member of the NRA .I do not hunt I do not keep firearms laying around .They are locked up in safes and I am most certainly not a radical.We do need better back ground checks..I will wait for a firearm if need be to insure the safety of others.Do not punish the innocent for others crimes.

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