Thinking About Guns
Jill Lepore's disturbing recent New Yorker article about the policies and politics of gun control isn't likely to resonate in this political year. This is unfortunate, because it gets at some of our deeper national pathologies. Interspersed with accounts of and references to rampages of gun violence--including both well-known episodes like the massacres at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, and less covered (but more recent) multiple murders at schools in Ohio and California--are daunting facts about our national fascination with deadly weapons and statistics on their dreary impact.
Even more interesting is a story I hadn't known before, about the evolution of the National Rifle Association from a "sporting and hunting association" often supportive of common-sense gun control into the maximalist and ferociously partisan lobbying entity we know today. The NRA has moved toward a harder line even as the national incidence of gun ownership has declined; Lepore reports that significantly fewer Americans own guns now than was the case a generation ago. But gun-related violence certainly hasn't decreased, probably owing in part to the slackening of gun laws as well as the increasingly easy availability of ever-deadlier weapons.
It's well known and not even much lamented anymore that the Democrats have all but entirely ceded gun control as an issue. (Though this hasn't stopped the leadership of the NRA from insisting that Barack Obama's very silence on firearms through his first term is itself proof of his utter commitment to seizing Americans' guns if they're foolish enough to re-elect him.) The automatic weapons ban signed by Bill Clinton in 1994 lapsed in 2004, and when Obama took office there was little effort to reinstate it despite Democrats' sizable congressional majorities in 2009. No matter how egregious the gun-related crime--Columbine and Virginia Tech, the January 2011 massacre in Tucson, Arizona that killed six people (including the granddaughter of Dallas Green, manager of the 1980 world champion Phillies) and wounded another twelve (including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords)--there's no serious effort to tighten up gun laws. Even the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, which Lepore discusses at some length, seems unlikely to lead to serious consideration of repealing the "Stand Your Ground" law under which George Zimmerman claims justification for having shot the teenager.
This is the nature of interest-group politics: a small faction that holds a minority viewpoint can prevail so long as its commitment to that position is disproportionately greater than that of the majority and has the resources to press its case. The irony here, if that's the word, is that the NRA as an organization seems to hold positions far more extreme than that of its membership: "According to a 2009 Luntz poll, for instance, requiring mandatory background checks on all purchasers at gun shows is favored not only by eighty-five per cent of gun owners who are not members of the N.R.A. but also by sixty-nine per cent of gun owners who are." It seems reasonable to assume that non-gun owners would be even more solidly in support of stronger gun laws. But given what we've seen over the last fifteen years, it's almost impossible to imagine what series of events would suffice to shift the political dynamic in a way that would lead to tighter regulation.
In addition to the obvious factor--our national and ongoing romanticizing of weapons and what one can do with them--I have a theory on why this is. The one common complaint across the American political spectrum is the feeling that the average citizen has lost control. Banks seemingly can foreclose upon your home at will; certainly the vast majority of Americans now can be fired without much advance notice or recourse; your retirement savings can be wiped out in an eyeblink. Some of this is specific to our politics; some of it just has to do with modernity. But whatever the reason, the collective sense is that things are out of our hands.
In some respect, the possession and use of a gun is a logical, though not rational, response to that circumstance. I imagine that the seeming rightness of that response increases as you head down the socioeconomic ladder.