Polls show that most Americans want far stronger gun control laws -- including the majority of gun owners. This mainstream opinion was galvanized by a recent string of horrific school shootings and solidified by continuing disgust at the gun lobby's choke hold on the political process. We are finally fed up with a firearms death rate in our country that is eight times greater than those of 25 other wealthy nations combined.
In response, gun control supporters in Congress timidly introduced a short list of limited proposals, dominated by requirements for child safety locks on handguns and background checks at gun shows. The president offered a slightly longer list of ideas, equally narrow in scope. Most gun control advocates agreed with these politicians' cautious strategy and took pains to describe their ideas with unthreatening words such as "modest," "sensible" and "reasonable." They promoted "gun safety" rather than "gun control." The justification for selecting such small measures was the notion that they would be easier to pass.
Every gun measure lost in the House. So much for that plan.
Now -- even as another horrendous massacre, this one in Atlanta, shocks the country -- it's time for gun control advocates to recognize what a colossal blunder it is to nibble around the edges of our nation's giant gun violence problem. Without a coherent, bold vision, these baby steps will get us nowhere.
The piecemeal proposals offered in Congress left the firearms manufacturers untouched. Guns are the only consumer product in America exempt from federal consumer health and safety laws. As a result, toy guns are regulated, real guns are not.
Our laws focus almost exclusively on the purchase and use of firearms, even as the industry churns out guns with no sporting purpose whatsoever, such as assault weapons, 50-caliber sniper rifles and tiny but powerful handguns called pocket rockets. If these inherently dangerous products were regulated -- just as pesticides, pharmaceuticals and motor vehicles are -- then their most hazardous features could be removed and the most unreasonably dangerous weapons could be banned. Legislation giving such oversight power to the Treasury Department has been introduced in both houses of Congress.
The gun lobby and the firearms industry would both be on the run, if only we would bother to chase them. They are fighting desperately against a saturated market. Only one in four Americans now owns a gun, even fewer own a handgun and the numbers continue to fall. Since statistics show that adults are unlikely to buy guns unless they were exposed to them as children, the shift in the suburbs from shooting dads to soccer moms will accelerate this decline.
These demographic facts should embolden gun control advocates. Eager for a steady diet of tiny victories, however, too many settle for any measure labeled "gun safety." As a result, they found themselves storming the barricades in the House over the arcane question of whether background checks at gun shows should last 24 hours, 72 hours or three business days. No wonder most Americans were scratching their heads at what seemed like petty bickering. No wonder the gun lobby was able to whittle away at the limited proposals until they vanished. By asking for so little, proponents rallied inadequate public support and gained nothing.
Rather than pussyfooting around the real problems with guns, we should tackle the long-term goal of regulating them like every other consumer product. This could take a bit longer, but it would build a cohesive national movement for gun control, summon the stamina to counter the gun lobby over the long haul and arrive at a solution that really reduces America's shocking firearms death toll. In other words, it would be a battle worth fighting.
The writer is executive director of the Violence Policy Center.