This is going to be a difficult column to write but it needs to be written. So I’m going to ask all my friends on the gun-sense side of the aisle (my friends on the pro-gun side seem to be dwindling – gee, I wonder why?) to read what I write very carefully and don’t jump to the conclusion that Mike the Gun Guy has finally lost his mind. He hasn’t, he’s just trying to respond to a very difficult issue that has come up of late. And what I am referring to is the recent Pew poll which finds that, for the first time since the poll began in 1993, “there is more support for gun rights than gun control.” I am quoting Pew.
As can be imagined, the poll results created lots of chatter on both sides. The NRA immediately weighed in, claiming the poll showed that, “Americans of nearly every description are embracing the Second Amendment at historic levels, even as its opponents pour historic amounts of money and effort into suppressing it.” The Campaign to Stop Gun Violence and other groups, went online with a petition asking Pew to change the wording of their poll question because the current question “creates a false perception of gun safety advocates, who are not trying to ‘control gun ownership’ but rather want reasonable regulations that keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people.”
I have seen confidential marketing surveys conducted by more than one gun company which asks the same questions not just of telephone respondents, but focus groups, door-to-door surveys, the whole bit. These studies are expensive, they are conducted with care, and the gun companies rely on this information (after all, they pay big bucks for it) more then they rely on public opinion polls from Pew, Gallup, or anyone else. And what these polls consistently show is that, by a margin of two-thirds over one-third, Americans support the idea of private gun ownership, but by the same margin support the idea that gun ownership should be subject to some kind of government control. And this two-third, one-third breakdown appears in virtually every demographic, every geographic, every way in which the marketing companies slice and dice the information they receive.
So the argument gets down not to whether the government should control firearm ownership, but to what extent and to what degree these controls should exist. And by the way, despite what all these 2nd-Amendment “absolutists” who are opposed to any government gun controls may say, no less a gun nut than Antonin Scalia gave the government explicit authority to “regulate” firearm commerce in the Heller decision of 2008.
I think it’s not such an easy task, indeed perhaps a very difficult task, to convince gun advocates that “reasonable regulations” to keep guns out of the wrong hands can be understood as something other than more “gun control” laws. And what makes it very difficult is that the NRA and its allies have never positioned themselves as being against “reasonableness” of any sort; rather, they dodge this issue by claiming that even the most ‘reasonable’ gun regulation becomes a ‘slippery slope’ that leads to real gun control, i.e., confiscation of guns. Whether it’s banning Saturday Night Specials, or hi-cap magazines or expanding background checks, they have used this argument to fight against every ‘reasonable’ gun-safety measure over the last twenty years.
I’m not so sure that the Pew poll is necessarily catching responses to the wrong question as much as it reflects the degree to which opposition to government regulation, any kind of regulation, is increasingly the watchword of a major chunk of the electorate, particularly the electorate that is painted a bright red. The problem for the gun-sense movement is not that reasonable gun regulations are a partisan issue in and of themselves, but they have become a part of a wider argument about the role of government in and of itself.