Want To Message About Gun Violence? Do’t Forget The Gun.

Following the October, 2015 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, MoveOn.org announced a petition drive asking gun-owning members of the organization to ‘push for common-sense gun control measures;’ an activity which netted support from more  than 32,000 gun-owning MoveOn members within one month.  Practically speaking, the petition went nowhere, but at least it demonstrated that not every politically-minded gun guy supports the NRA.

ruger             And this is good news for the gun violence prevention (GVP) movement, because it runs counter to the usual assumption that the basic fault line dividing Gun-nut Nation from Gun-sense Nation is the ownership of guns.  Not that 32,000 gun-owning MoveOn members compares to the alleged 4 million gun-toters who line up for NRA.  But it’s enough of a base to convince other MoveOn members to get involved, which can’t but help grow the strength of the mainline gun-sense organizations like Shannon’s Moms, Everytown, Violence Policy Center, and the Brady Campaign.

I’m not optimistic about the chances of national gun regulations moving forward in the Age of Trump, but if The Donald gets on his high horse and starts ranting about the 2nd Amendment (a subject that has yielded a curious silence from the 26th Floor of since he ended his campaign,) there’s nothing that gets the opposition more worked up than being able to identify a threat from the other side.  But if Gun-sense Nation wants to mobilize a wider swath of active supporters, particularly folks who largely sit on the sidelines today, they are going to have to come up with a message that reaches beyond simply reminding people about the number of people killed with guns.

And this is where the activities of public service organizations like MADD and the anti-smoking groups aren’t such a good fit. Because everyone drives a car and everyone knows someone else who smokes.  But as an important article published today in The Trace points out, even in cities with high (and increasing) gun-violence rates, like Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Lou, there are many neighborhoods where gun violence remains at historically low levels, and it’s in these more affluent areas, both within the cities and the suburbs, where folks who need to be motivated about gun violence tend to live.

So coming up with a message to which people not directly affected by gun violence will understand is not such a simple or obvious thing. And if the GVP community thinks they can adopt or own a phrase that promotes ‘responsible’ gun ownership, the gun industry itself has been using that exact messaging for over thirty years, and I know they have no interest in sharing idea with the other side. Now I’m not talking about the NRA’s phony Eddie Eagle safety campaign whose effectiveness has never (read: never) been evaluated at all.  I’m talking about the gun industry itself and the basic message that has been promoted by the world’s largest manufacturer of small arms – Sturm, Ruger & Co. – for the last thirty years.

Back in the 1980s, America’s most iconic gun designer, Bill Ruger, adopted the slogan ‘Gun Makers For Responsible Citizens’ to go with the unique heraldic eagle logo that had originally been designed by his partner, Alexander Sturm.  Ruger considered himself a designer and manufacturer of sporting arms, his first hunting rifle to incorporate military-style engineering, the Mini-14, shipped from the factory with a 5-shot mag. In the run-up to the 1994 assault weapons ban, Ruger endorsed not a gun ban but a ban on hi-cap mags, a stance he then quietly abandoned when talk about a company boycott started to spread around.

In recent years, Sturm, Ruger has moved into promoting small, concealable hi-caliber pistols, a product shift which gives GVP an opportunity to push its own definition of responsible gun ownership focusing not on the behavior of gun owners but on the guns themselves.  A 9mm pistol no bigger than a droid simply isn’t a sporting arm. And that’s what causes gun violence – it’s the gun, stupid, it’s the gun.

 

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We Know That Guns Are A Risk. But Does Anyone Really Care?

Two noted clinical gun researchers, ER physicians Garen Wintemute and Megan Ranney, have just published an important commentary about gun violence. The article follows from the decision of the American College of Emergency Physicians to join the seven other major medical organizations in calling for a more aggressive and comprehensive medical approach to gun violence, and the authors raise some important issues both in terms of the data on gun violence, as well as the particular challenges facing ER physicians who often face this problem on a daily basis.

The article points out that while vehicular and gun death rates were relatively stable beginning in 2000 and continuing for the next six or seven years, motor vehicle deaths then plunged again while the rate of gun mortality is beginning to creep back up.  The decline in car deaths is due to a successful public health campaign, but there has been no such campaign in the case of guns. This is even more disconcerting when one realizes that the United States is, in fact, one of the least violent countries in the OECD.  The percentage of American adults reporting being the victims of an assault is less than one third the number in Belgium, less than half of what is reported in Switzerland or Spain.

emt                What sets America apart from these other countries is that our violence is so much more deadly, and this is due to the existence of so many guns.  Only one OECD country, Israel, has a homicide rate one-third as high as ours; for the remaining OECD community our rate is ten to thirty times higher than anywhere else.  The authors tie these disparities to the enormous number of guns floating around, the U.S. counts only 5% of the world’s population but more than 40% of all guns in civilian hands.  I want to inject a cautionary note here, however, because our gun violence is overwhelmingly a function of the presence and use of handguns and, if anything, the U.S. probably has even a greater proportion of the world’s privately-owned pistols and revolvers, certainly this is the case when we confine our comparison to the rest of the OECD.

I mention the issue of handguns because the authors call for comprehensive background checks as the primary mechanism for reducing the possibility that guns will get into the wrong hands.  But I have never understood why background check advocates always promote checks both on handguns and long guns when gun violence as a criminal behavior overwhelmingly involves handguns, and while long guns are often used in suicides, it is arguably the case that long gun suicides are usually committed by the legal owner of the gun.  Given the firestorm that erupts every time an attempt is made to expand background checks, would we lose much ground by only using NICS to control the transfer of guns that cause the most harm?

My other concern is the article’s reliance on a public health approach that has worked for many other products but does not, in my view, address the central issue involved in regulating guns.  I cannot think of another consumer product whose regulation was opposed by the energized, mobilized and well-financed grass-roots effort which is the case with guns.  Of course car manufacturers fought seat belts, of course cigarette companies tried to deny that smoking made people sick, but when public policies were being debated you didn’t see the galleries packed by drivers or smokers demanding that the government stay off their backs.

Public opinion polls now show that, pace the valid research referenced by Wintemute and Ranney, a majority of Americans believe that a home containing guns is safer than a home which is gewehr-rein.  Consider such people deluded, stupid or worse, but the NRA has done a helluva job making us feel that the benefits of gun ownership outweigh the risks.  And I’m not sure the other side has a message that plays as well in Peoria or anywhere else.

If The NRA Didn’t Exist, The Gun Control Crowd Would Have To Invent It

Today I received an email from the Violence Policy Center, a DC-based advocacy group that often partners with Brady and Bloomberg to push back against the legislative and legal initiatives of the NRA.  Like every organizational email I receive from both sides, the VPC wants dough.  But this particular message caught my eye because of what it said about the NRA’s upcoming Indianapolis show.

The VPC is upset not just in general about the NRA’s impending celebration of gun ownership, but in particular because the show is being held this year in a city that has an alarmingly high murder rate, many of these homicides, according to the VPC, committed with guns.  Here’s a quote from the email:  “Wayne LaPierre, Ted Nugent, and the rest of the NRA leadership will be in Indianapolis later this month for the NRA’s annual meeting which begins on April 25. We don’t expect they will mention the fact that Indianapolis has a murder rate higher than Chicago’s and that most of those killings are committed with guns.”

I’m not exactly sure what the connection is between the crime rate in Indianapolis and the fact that the Indiana Convention Center no doubt worked like hell to land the NRA show.  I also suspect that the decision to hold the show in Indianapolis was made years ago and who knows whether crime in Indianapolis has since gone up or down.  But if you think for one second that anyone who’s coming to Indianapolis to visit the NRA show gives a rat’s damn about crime in Indianapolis, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

feinsteinThe crowd at the NRA show is going to look just like the NRA membership everywhere else; mostly male, White, over the age of 50 and living in rural areas or smaller towns.  The NRA show is just a big gun show and these folks will do what they always do at those shows: play with the guns, eat a few treats, stand on line for a couple of hours to get Ted Nugent’s autograph, say hello to friends, then hop in their 4×4’s and drive back home.  They won’t spend a second in the city of Indianapolis, and if while they’re at the show a couple of more inner-city residents are gunned down, they won’t know about it and they won’t care.

Meanwhile, the NRA will treat them to a good dose of double-talk as to why they are really there.  They’ll remind the visitors that guns are the best line of defense against criminals and crime. There will be endless exhortations to fight back against a federal government that is out to grab their guns.  And if they need the ultimate proof that God is on their side, they can always line up for admission to the Prayer Breakfast before entering the exhibit hall.

lapierreWant the truth? Both sides in the gun debate mobilize their followers by appealing to fear.  In the case of the NRA, it’s a fear of losing your guns, a fear of the government, a fear of crime.  For the Violence Policy Center and like-minded organizations, it’s a fear of guns.  As long as the two sides continue to appeal to their followers on the basis of fear, there’s really no chance that we will have a reasonable and responsible discussion about how to stop the killings that occur in Indianapolis and other cities and towns.

If we ever had such a debate, maybe it would turn out that we as Americans would decide that 30,000 gun deaths every year is a small price to pay for the fun of attending the NRA show.  Or maybe we would decide that the violence has to stop right now and the 2nd Amendment notwithstanding, everyone has to turn in their guns.  I don’t really care which way such a debate works out; all I know is that neither pro-gun nor anti-gun advocates are interested in kicking one off.