Once again, their voices are missing from the debate.
Gun owners who favor tighter restrictions on firearms say they are in the same position after the mass shooting in Oregon as they have been following other rampages — shut out of the argument.
The pattern, they say, is frustrating and familiar: The what-should-be-done discussion pits anti-gun groups against the National Rifle Association and its allies, who are adamantly opposed to any new restrictions on weapons.
Gun owners who occupy the middle ground complain that they are rarely sought out or heard, yet polls show that the majority of gun owners support universal background checks and other controversial limits. President Obama is reportedly considering using his executive authority to impose new background-check requirements for high-volume dealers in private sales — and many gun owners may support that.
“There’s this perception that people are neatly divided into folks who want an M1A1 Abrams battle tank to drive to work and those who want to melt every last gun and bullet into doorstops,” said Patrick Tomlinson, a science-fiction writer and gun owner in Milwaukee who favors universal background checks and longer waiting periods for gun purchases. “There seems to be no middle there, but I know there is. I’m in it.”
Gun owners and dealers who publicly break with the NRA and other powerful gun rights groups sometimes find themselves being labeled as anti-gunners, traitors or worse.
The online vitriol can be intense, particularly after high-profile shootings such as the Oregon community college this month that left 10 dead including the gunman, or on Friday at Northern Arizona University, where four people were shot, one fatally.
A.J. Somerset, a gun owner who criticized the country’s don’t-take-my-guns culture in a new book, has been accused by the NRA of hating the Second Amendment.
And last year, when a Maryland gun dealer announced plans to sell the nation’s first smart gun — it connects wirelessly to a watch that must be worn to fire it — protesters threatened to burn the store down, forcing him to back down. A caller told the owner, “You’re going to get what’s coming to you, [expletive].”
“We’re considered weirdos,” said George Legeros, a longtime Virginia gun owner who also supports universal background checks and limits on how many guns people may buy. “Anybody who tries to take guns away is a bad man. That’s why the NRA doesn’t represent me. For lack of a better word, they are too whacked-out. It’s one thing to be pro-gun. It’s another thing to have no common sense.”
Nearly 1 in 3 Americans own a gun. But only 5 million belong to the NRA, which is often portrayed as the voice of hunters, skeet shooters and other gun owners. The squelched majority could emerge as a powerful force in the gun control debate, gun control advocates say, if they ever gain traction — emphasis on if.
Daniel Webster, a firearms expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (it receives funding from Michael R. Bloomberg, a gun control advocate), said the country isn’t destined to always have the world’s highest gun violence rates “because many of the measures we need are supported by very large majorities of gun owners.”
Although public opinion polls show that gun owners strongly favor protecting gun rights over curtailing them, when they are asked about specific ideas for restrictions, most are in favor.
Surveys by Johns Hopkins and the Pew Research Center show that about 85 percent of gun owners favor universal background checks, an idea fiercely opposed by the gun lobby. Gun owners also strongly support a federal database of gun sales, prohibiting ownership for those convicted of domestic violence and barring people with mental illness from buying guns.
Though there is less support for banning high-powered assault rifles — about 49 percent of gun owners would, vs. 64 percent of non-gun owners, according to Pew — gun control advocates are emboldened that a near majority is out of lockstep with the gun lobby.
“I can’t think of a single issue that has generated more noise and more hype in the gun community than the issue of assault rifles over the last several years,” Michael Weisser, a Vermont gun dealer and NRA opponent, wrote on his blog in June. “That nearly 50% of gun owners don’t buy this nonsense should give pause to those who still regard the NRA as a behemoth when it comes to influencing public opinion about guns. To me, it’s more like a case of the emperor without clothes.”
The NRA did not return a request for comment, but its officials regularly argue that many gun control proposals would not stop mass shootings.
After a man killed two broadcast journalists in Virginia in August, Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, wrote in a Washington Times opinion piece that “no piece of legislation pushed by gun control advocates would have stopped him from committing this brutal crime.”
Public health officials and gun owners who want more restrictions acknowledge that in many cases, that’s true. But they argue that tighter control could still save a significant number of lives. The problem, they argue, is that the NRA won’t give an inch, turning up the fear dial, which almost always increases gun sales.
“The NRA believes that every attempt to regulate is one step toward the promised land of prohibition,” said Michael Chandler, a 60-year-old New York physician and gun owner. “But it’s not. We can do sensible things.”
Though he’s an NRA life member because he supports their safety training courses, he knows the organization won’t listen to his views on gun control. And he’s stopped listening to their views.
“I hang up when they call me,” he said.
If gun owners such as Chandler want their voices heard, they need to organize themselves. There have been several efforts in the past decade to launch organizations of moderate gun owners, but with little success. New efforts are underway.
Rebecca Bond, a former marketing executive, co-founded a nonprofit group called Evolve, which bills itself as “the third voice in the gun debate.” The idea is to bring together moderate gun owners and entrenched gun voices — pro and con — to promote a cultural shift in the gun debate, favoring conversation about safety over political acrimony.
Bond’s strategy: Use humor and a conversational tone. Its videos on gun safety have gone viral — one posits that the Bill of Rights shouldn’t be infringed “as long as people aren’t being dumba--es.” The question-and-answer section on its Web site is both entertaining and welcoming.
“Are you opposed to me owning a gun?” it asks. “Nope. There are over 300 million guns out there in America with another 6 million sold every year. We’re not trying to be involved in who’s allowed to own what. We’re just opposed to accidental holes in stuff. Whether they’re in furniture or people or a pizza, we hate accidental holes. We’re staunchly opposed to them.”
Another question: “If you’re ‘neutral,’ why do you interact with known anti-gun and pro-gun groups?” The answer: “Safety is not a side; it’s everyone’s personal responsibility. Also, we’d go on a date with a bloodsucking swamp troll if we thought it would save a life.”
But when it comes to changing the gun debate, dating a swamp troll might be less challenging. The organization raised just $20,042 in 2014, though Bond said it has picked up this year, reaching nearly $100,000. By comparison, the NRA raised nearly $350 million in 2013.
“I feel like I’m driving a truck through a cement wall every day,” Bond said. “Old habits die hard.”