Why gun control is so hard: Hint, it’s not the NRA

The scene of the Aurora, Colo. shooting in 2012, the day after the crime. Credit: Algr/Wikipedia

Many people are wondering how a basic, common sense law like universal background checks for gun purchases can fail in both D.C. and Olympia. Polls show that on the state and national level, the idea enjoys the support of approximately 9 out of 10 voters.

The public acceptance of the idea makes sense. After all, we don’t get to drive a car if we have a history of drunk driving, so why should somebody with a felony or domestic violence problems or someone involuntarily committed for mental illness be able to buy an unlimited number of firearms at gun shows or online,  no questions asked?

The explanation for the failure in the state and the nation's capital is not the clout of the NRA or the gun manufacturers, who provide as much as half of NRA revenue. At $1.3 billion, the total revenue for the gun industry annually is only slightly more than what a company like Apple makes in a given week in a good quarter. And last year the NRA spent less than $7 million dollars on non-Presidential elections — and lost far more of those contests than it won. Indeed a watchdog group called The Sunlight Foundation said the NRA has the worst return of investment on its political donations of any lobbying organization

The No. 1 reason why gun control legislation fails to pass is that, with the sporadic exceptions of a tragedy like Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook, nobody speaks for the victim. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was able to reduce drunk driving deaths in half over a 20-year span, from approximately 30,000 annual deaths nationwide to the current 15,000 level. Outraged parents made it their life mission to ensure a changed culture and to produce legislation on the matter of drunk driving. And they succeeded  despite opposition even more powerful and deep-pocketed than the NRA

School shootings represent only a small fraction of gun deaths. More than 90 percent of the 31,000 annual gun fatalities trace to suicide, domestic violence or gangs.

These three societal issues typically carry with them, for better or worse, some element of shame for the families involved — shame that stymies loved ones from organizing and taking a proactive stance in addressing the issue for the benefit of future generations.

In this way, the push for gun control most resembles the push to end slavery. The push for change has been driven by a limited number of high-minded citizens like long-time broadcast executive Ancil Payne or Tom Wales, the federal prosecutor and gun-control advocate assasinated in his Queen Anne home. That kind of push is quite different than what comes from the controlled, sustained mass anger of the immediate families of drunk-driving victims.

And many high-minded folks who get involved in the wake of Columbine or Sandy Hook peel away from the uphill, often thankless fight after just a year or two. Indeed the sustained outrage on the gun-control issue comes instead from gun lovers who are stirred into a paranoid frenzy from various gun rights groups — including the NRA — who make a mint on memberships motivated by misleading messaging.

I, for one, do believe that Sandy Hook represents a tipping point moment. The president has committed himself to the issue and the NRA has exposed its true essence as an extremist group. I believe an initiative on universal background checks will pass next year in this state. But we need for a number of different bills — like tougher penalties on juvenile possession and a limit on magazine clip capacity — to pass to significantly reduce the bloodshed. Sadly, the gun control movement will get a boost in the next year or a year or two after another Sandy Hook. 

Gun legislation does work, as research cited in Harvard School of Public Health Professor David Hemenway's "Private Guns, Public Health," shows that those states that have the most comprehensive laws have a small fraction of the gun deaths versus those with the fewest restrictions. We will eventually get to a much safer society, but it will take 20 years or more. During that time, some 2 million more Americans will be killed or injured by a firearm.

Gun violence has become the defining issue for this country. The United States, Hemenway notes, suffers 80 percent of all firearm deaths among the top 23 wealthiest countries in the world. And that dubious, lofty distinction is sadly unlikely to change until many more families in this country affected by gun violence stand up.

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