CAS Prof on Why Gun Control Won’t Happen, Again
Culture wars run deep in firearms debate
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