Richard M. Aborn is president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City and a former president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. He was a principal strategist behind passage of the Brady Bill in 1994 and legislation banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.
Every year, abhorrent acts of gun violence are met with cries of anguish, token denunciation — and nothing else. The debate about guns in the United States has always been between David and Goliath. Last year, the gun lobby outspent advocates of gun control by 11 to 1, or $2.9 million vs. $260,000.
Yet gun violence has disappeared from the national political agenda, even as the United States leads its post-industrial peers with an average of eight times as many annual deaths as a result of gun violence.
In 2008, the Supreme Court established in District of Columbia v. Heller that individuals have the right to own guns — and that the possession of firearms is subject to reasonable regulations. So what has changed since the 1990s, when Congress passed major legislation such as the Brady Bill and the ban on assault weapons? Why have opponents of reasonable gun-control measures gained strength while the gun-control movement has shrunk? The answers are in the heart of the questions.
The communication strategy of the National Rifle Association centers on the idea that passage of any gun-control measure is a step toward the elimination of all guns. Framing the issue this way foments an element necessary to sustaining a broad movement that votes: the personal interest of its members.
Virtually all of the long-term grass-roots political movements in U.S. history have centered on direct stakeholders with a sustainable, single-minded focus that determines not only how an individual votes but also provides a strong motivation to vote. Most supporters of the early suffragist movement, abortion rights, civil rights, gay marriage and even the NRA have had a direct stake in the outcomes of their issues.
Although living in a society free from gun violence may be a collective desire, those who support this principle commonly hold that goal among a larger constellation of beliefs. Supporters of gun control tend to be broad-based progressives who also support education reform, reproductive choice, marriage equality and other issues. In a country with low voter turnout, the ability to form single-issue voting blocs is a powerful political tool. The NRA has succeeded in doing this; the gun-control movement has not.
The decline in enthusiasm among gun-control supporters corresponds to the dramatic decrease in crime in this country. In November, 1 percent of respondents told Gallup that crime was the most important issue facing the nation, in contrast to 52 percent saying the same in 1994.
The issue is not just that the NRA has created power but also that supporters of gun control have waned. Many things can be done to take that control back, but three are critical:
First, Americans must shed the notion that the battle against violent crime has been won. More Americans were killed by gun violence last year than all American troops who have been killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. African American youths are five times as likely to be killed as a result of gun violence than their white counterparts.
Second, an alliance must be forged with gun owners. Ninety percent of gun owners support reasoned measures to keep guns from criminals and the mentally unbalanced, bipartisan polls show. Sensible people do not want to see illegal gun markets flourish — or for the likes of Jared Loughner, who killed six people in January 2011 when he also wounded then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 12 others, to lawfully buy guns. But the NRA’s rhetoric has convinced gun owners that the “gun-control movement” seeks to ban all guns. Remove this rhetorical obstacle, and gun owners would be much more likely to support measures designed to break up illegal gun markets — which is also a step toward diminishing the power of the NRA.
Finally, the NRA has successfully argued that gun-control laws are ineffective while it also works to ensure there is little to no government funding for scientific research on the effectiveness of gun-control measures. Supporters of gun control have to win the effectiveness argument if we hope to win at the ballot box. Although existing research in the United States may be slim, the plunging number of gun deaths in other post-industrial nations with reasonable gun-control laws is strong evidence in support of a national policy.
The gun-control movement must convince Americans that much work remains: that illegal guns continue to destroy the lives of more American youths than many dare imagine; that our lack of national policy has a deadly impact internationally; and, perhaps most important, that the movement behind gun control does not seek to limit a law-abiding person’s ability to get a gun. Continuing to be indifferent to the reality of gun violence in this country would be the most egregious offense.