The New York Times has just released a very detailed survey of academic experts regarding the effectiveness of various policies to help reduce gun violence. In addition to the academic experts, the surveys also captured views both of the general public and law enforcement personnel. The survey queried respondents on 29 specific policies, and compared their responses to views of the general public as well as the gun-control views of the incoming President-elect.
If the purpose of this survey was to contrast the gun-control views of the academic community versus the policies advocated by Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign, The Times didn’t need to waste anybody’s time. The NRA ponied up $30 million in television advertising for Trump after the organization endorsed him at their annual meet, and the one time he briefly deviated from the approved script by calling for guns in nightclubs and bars, he quickly fell back into line. Academics, on the other hand, usually tend to be anti-gun, although in this case The Times made sure that the pro-gun academic community (Kleck, Lott, Kopel, Volokh) was represented as well.
Many of these policies mentioned in the surveys are found in some states, such as expanded background checks, child access prevention (CAP) laws , banning or regulating hi-cap mags. But most state gun laws exist in places with smaller numbers of gun owners and/or states whose electorate is still largely colored blue. Go into a gun-owning, red-vote state like Missouri or Alabama and see how much support you find for a bill to expand background checks. Meanwhile, states with fewer gun laws tend, by and large, to suffer more violence from guns.
So why is it that none of the ten policies rated to most effective for curbing gun violence, all of which had public support ranging from 63% to 88%, have actually become federal law? The usual explanation is what you would expect, namely, the power and the money of the NRA. But when I look at The New York Times survey it actually reflects something much more concerning about why sensible ideas for gun regulations at the federal level never get beyond first base. And my concern is based not on who participated in the poll, but who did not.
Virtually every single policy which the experts were asked to rate in terms of effectiveness for increasing safety from gun violence would require some behavioral or attitudinal response on the part of gun owners themselves. And while the survey may have caught a few gun owners in the ‘representative sample’ of voters who were queried for this poll, the Times made no effort to reach out to the gun-owning community at all. They did what liberals concerned about gun violence always do – they came up with a ‘balanced’ roster of participants representing both sides and they ended up with results that tell us nothing about how people will react who ultimately be affected by any change in gun laws.
The inability of the gun violence prevention community to communicate with gun owners about the risks of firearm ownership is a much more potent weapon in the NRA’s arsenal than any amount of money dumped into a legislator’s lap. Public health researchers publish their work in peer-reviewed, academic journals with minimal notice beyond academe; leading gun-control advocates aren’t invited on the shock-jock media circuit, none of the major gun-control organizations (in comparison to the NRA) has a digital video presence which has become the real information superhighway over the last several years.
For gun owners to understand that sensible gun regulations don’t represent Armageddon, they need to be engaged with language and arguments they understand. You don’t do this by publishing scholarly articles in JAMA or Saturday Review. Instead, you find a hunter or sportsman to send an article to Field and Stream. And then you figure out a message that tells gun owners they can be pleased and safe with their guns at the same time.