Are Evangelicals Moving Away From A Pro-Gun Stance? Not So Fast.

Today our friends at The Trace discussed a new survey of Evangelical leaders which shows a majority (55%) might support stronger gun-control laws, even though this same majority reported that they personally own guns. This survey comes as something of a surprise to the gun violence prevention (GVP) movement, given the fact that Evangelicals overwhelmingly supported you-know-who in the 2016 election, and you-know-who ran as the candidate of the NRA.  From now on, incidentally, I’m going to refer to the present occupant of the Oval Office as you-know-who, or YKW for short, because his shenanigans don’t deserve to let him be accorded any kind of proper name. Anyway, back to the Evangelicals.

guns and church             I think the idea of a possible shift in Evangelical views on guns needs to be understood in a somewhat more nuanced way. First of all, the Evangelical support for YKW in 2016 was basically rooted amongst white Evangelicals, who constitute a majority of the total Evangelical population, but certainly do not represent the Evangelical movement as a whole. If anything, Evangelicalism appears to be growing fastest within the new-immigrant community, most of whom are considered ‘white’ in a racial sense, but share little of the values, outlook and most of all, religious activity and behavior with the traditional Evangelical population which is overwhelmingly located in rural or suburban areas, primarily in the South.

To drive to my office in Springfield I go down the main street of Chicopee, MA, which used to be the location of enormous manufacturing plants owned by Spalding and Westinghouse, but is now just another, inner-city pile of rubble surrounded by crummy housing, welfare offices and mini-marts. On the six blocks of Main Street which I take to get to work, I pass eight storefront Evangelical churches, whose congregations are entirely comprised of recent immigrants, most of whom do not speak English as a primary language and have as much in common with white Evangelicals siting in those mega-churches as I have with the man in the moon.

Given this division within the Evangelical community, it should come as no surprise that a slight majority of the religious leaders responding to a survey conducted by the National Association of Evangelicals would be in favor of stricter gun-control laws. After all, the NAE sent a public letter from its leadership criticizing YKW for his initial order barring immigrants; it also issued a very strong condemnation of white supremacy after Charlottesville (“The NAE condemns white supremacy and all groups, such as the KKK and Neo-Nazis, that champion it.”) and immediately called on Congress to protect DACA after YKW announced his intention to terminate the program over the next six months.

Where did YKW deliver his first commencement speech after taking office? At Liberty University to which he was returning following a campaign appearance at the school in 2016. In both appearances, Trump made no attempt to hide his pro-gun credentials, given the fact that the school’s President, Jerry Falwell, Jr., is a strong advocate of concealed-carry and recently announced the construction of a shooting range where students can get trained and apply for CCW, although Liberty University, believe it or not, does not allow students to walk around the campus toting guns. So much for Falwell’s nonsense about the virtues of being armed.

Obviously, whenever any faith-based group or organization pushes the idea of stricter gun laws, such news should be shared around the community which advocates reducing the violence caused by guns. But in evaluating the impact of such pronouncements, the gun-violence advocacy community needs to fully understand both the motives and the context in which such ideas might arise. Would it have been better had the NAE survey disclosed that a majority of respondents were against stricter regulations on guns? Of course not. But by the same token, to believe that the Evangelical movement as a whole may be moving away from a pro-gun position is to make an assumption which is simply not true.

 

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It’s Not Just Gun Sales That Matter, It’s The Argument Behind The Guns.

The FBI just released its figures for NICS background checks processed in March, and the number of background checks for gun transactions, as opposed to gun licenses, has swung slightly back up.  This information, of course, has unleashed paroxysms of joy in Gun-nut Nation, because everyone has been saying that gun sales will continue to slip during the Age of Trump. Now one month’s sales don’t really tell you all that much, particularly since I suspect that many of those sales represented consumers taking advantage of price cuts by gun retailers who have to move unsold inventory off their shelves.

 

lott

John Lott

To me, the much more important impact of the Trump election is not the impact on sales, but the degree to which his pro-gun stance alters the basic narrative about the value and importance of guns. Because let’s not forget that the NRA and the other purveyors of guns as the all-American item of choice were able to promote gun sales primarily by arguing, with some degree of truthfulness by the way, that a guy like Obama in the White House meant that guns might be taken away.  And the same argument was used against Hillary’s Presidential bid and the same arguments about alleged ‘threats’ to 2nd-Amendment ‘rights’ have been used to spur gun sales over the last twenty or thirty years.

But now the NRA is hoisted by its own petard, because you can accuse the Trump administration of all kinds of things, but one of the things you can’t accuse them of being is against guns. And just today our friends at The Trace posted a quick analysis of the views of incoming Justice Department attorneys, and all of them are decidedly (and somewhat stupidly) very pro-gun.

A secondary theme supporting the idea of a gun in every garage is the notion that we need all the protection we can get in an age when terrorists can penetrate the country as quickly as a new strain of the flu, and can or will mount deadly attacks wherever and whenever they please. But this argument also falls flat in the face of constant bromides from Herr Trump about how he’s going to keep us all safe. After all, if the new, tough Trump government is going all-out to protect us from harm, how can one argue that we should be concerned about personal protection at all?

So if the pro-gun narrative that preceded Trump is no longer working, what happens to the people and organizations whose mission is to spread that narrative every chance they get? I’m thinking, for example, about the fortunes of my good friend John Lott, whose books and lectures on the value of guns to protect us from violent crime has made him a visible media personality on shock-jock radio and FOX.

John runs something called the Crime Prevention Research Center, basically a home-grown website devoted to spreading his version of gun information far and wide. Actually, the site is an advertisement for his media appearances and public speeches; the truth is that John is an advocate much more than a researcher – I don’t recall the last time he actually published peer-reviewed research unless the definition of ‘research’ includes any time that someone opens their mouth.

The website and John’s advocacy activities are funded by donations from loyal supporters but the revenue levels recently haven’t done so well.  In 2013 the CPRC brought in $218,106, the following year donations zoomed upwards to $310,839, and then they dropped in 2015 to $166,736.  I don’t see the 2016 numbers but I did see an interesting comment from those idiots Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership site, who quoted an email fundraising appeal from Lott: “Unfortunately, the CPRC is literally almost out of money.  Donations have fallen off dramatically since the election.”

Gee, what a surprise. Gun-nut Nation doesn’t have to worry about losing their toys so support for pro-gun noisemakers like Lott immediately dry up. Will the same situation also begin to impact the NRA?

One More Gun-Free Zone Gives In To The Idea That Guns Protect Us From Crime.

This morning’s news contained an op-ed in the Daily Camera out of Boulder, CO, concerning the decision of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to relax its rules on CCW and allow armed visitors to stroll through the museum’s halls.  The decision, according to the Museum, was made to bring the DMNS into compliance with Colorado’s concealed-carry law, passed in 2003, which gives state residents the right to take their personal weapons into most public spaces, although CCW is not allowed in schools.

denver              Want to know the most bizarre statement of all coming out of this mess?  According to the op-ed, authored by three leaders of Colorado GVP groups, a spokesperson for the Museum, Maureen O’Neal, defended the new policy by stating that a ‘deciding factor” was the desire of the Museum to keep its visitors “safe during the holiday season.” Does this woman have any idea how dumb she is?  Does the Museum have any idea that someone so stupid is actually speaking on behalf of an institution where education takes place?

And make no mistake about it – the Denver Museum, like all natural history museums, is first and foremost an educational institution, not just in terms of how exhibits are developed and displayed, but by the character and numbers of their visitors who, more often than not, are children from surrounding schools.  My children were all educated in New York City public schools and they all made frequent class trips to the Museum of Natural History (founded by Teddy Roosevelt’s father) located on Manhattan’s Central Park West.  I know about these trips because I often accompanied my kid’s class as a parent-chaperone, and not a single visit occurred without the children spending time in the educational area being given a lesson by a member of the Museum’s education staff.

Think it’s any different at the Denver Museum?  Take a look at their education website, which contains all kinds of resources for teachers and students, and note the 2014 Annual Report which claims that the Museum served as a resource that year for 299,000 teachers and kids.  Total attendance in 2014 was 1.4 million, which means that the educational component of the operation served the needs of more than one-fifth of the total number of visitors who walked through the Museum’s doors.

So when we talk about this museum and its role in the educational environment of Denver and surrounding communities, we’re not talking about Old Macdonald’s Farm. We’re talking about an institution that provides a needed educational component for school-age kids.  The fact is that when schoolchildren and teachers walk into that museum to study the exhibits and listen to a staff member explain what’s going on, they are as much in a classroom as they would be if they were sitting in their own school.

All that is needed is to classify the museum as constituting part of a school which is engaging in distance learning but is offering educational resources that kids receive when they are in class. Obviously, the Colorado legislators who voted for CCW did not believe that armed civilians enhanced school security – so let’s just slightly enlarge the definition of what constitutes a ‘school.’

By creating a gun-free zone, the particular institution is saying that bringing a gun into the area does not enhance safety or security at all. And despite the contrary statement by the Museum’s spokeswoman, there is absolutely no credible evidence pointing to an enhancement of public safety in areas where civilians can walk around armed. The claim that armed citizens protect us from millions of crimes each year is nonsense, and anecdotal evidence simply cannot overcome the fact that virtually all gun homicides occur in places where people own or have access to guns. The NRA is determined to root out gun-free zones because this makes gun ownership more accepted as a normal state of affairs. And right now the Denver Museum is going along with their plan.

 

Where Should Americans Learn To Shoot? In School Of Course.

Last week the National Education Association posted a video by Billy Johnson, who does “news commentary” for the NRA.  Despite the disclaimer that the video does not represent the “opinions of other organizations,” the content is the usual NRA-admixture of half-truths, sophomoric clichés and outright lies.  THE NEA gave it front-page coverage because it promotes the idea of universal gun education as part of the normal school curriculum, kind of like driver’s ed and just as necessary as reading, writing and math.

What’s the justification for this nonsense?  According to Johnson, we should be teaching shooting in schools because Americans “need” guns and guns are “good.”  This polite rant reflects an emerging NRA strategy is to reach beyond the organization’s core membership with a broad-based message to drive home the idea of guns as just another, regular consumer product that everyone should own.  After all, once we get past purchasing the absolute necessities each week, don’t our decisions about what else to buy usually reflect only the fact that it’s something we really want?  What’s it going to be this week?  New shoes? New clothes? A new gun?  Let’s go shopping.

             Billy Johnson

Billy Johnson

The NRA messaging is an effort to “normalize” gun ownership, but also reflects their awareness of how Americans increasingly educate themselves, communicate with each other, and thus make decisions about what to buy, own, and otherwise pony up the consumer bucks.  Not only is the whole society moving towards digital and particularly video channels, but the Millennials, the only generation who have yet to decide whether or not they want to own guns, are twice as likely to use Facebook and other social media outlets to make contact and communicate with others.

A bit of recognition of this problem was recently voiced on Huffington Post by Dan Gross, President of the Brady Campaign, who talked about the importance of messaging gun safety by “taking the emotion out of a debate that has gotten all tangled up in the second amendment.”  He cites as a successful effort the joint Brady-American Academy of Pediatrics ASK program that encourages parents to ask if there are unsafe guns in homes where their children visit.  I’m not taking anything away from either organization, but this approach completely misunderstands the NRA whose cavalcade of video commentators not only talk the talk directly to potential gun owners, but also – and here’s the key element – talk specifically about guns.

                Gun control advocates feel comfortable talking about things like safety, background checks, mental health, concealed-carry and the like.  But to the average gun owner or the wannabe gun owner, that’s just so much noise.  The real question the gun control crowd should be asking is simply this: Do you really want to walk around with something which, in an instant, can end a life or change your life in an unalterably terrible way?  But somehow the advocates for more gun control always seem to gloss over the only thing that really makes a difference, and that one thing is the gun.  Meanwhile, the NRA forges ahead on the video playing-field selling the idea that guns are natural and good.  On this issue, the most important issue, the other side doesn’t even field a second-string team.

We have grown accustomed to believing that the size of the gun-owning population is decreasing as the public surveys continue to show a decline in the percentage of households which claim to have guns.  There is also plenty of internet chatter about how the NRA membership claims are vastly over-stated.  Even if this is all true, and I’m not sure it is, the NRA and the gun lobby in general aren’t rolling over and playing dead.  They are out there with their videos, their Facebook pages, their Tweets and the other channels that comprise a new media environment which they completely own. Do you think the other side can catch up?

America Goes To War And Takes Its Guns

Most of the design and engineering advances that created modern small arms came through the development of military weapons, both rifles like the Springfield 03 or handguns like John Browning’s Colt 1911. And whether it was the M-1 Garand that General Patton called the “greatest battle implement ever devised,” or the Winchester repeating carbine that the U.S. Cavalry carried against the Indians, it’s safe to say that guns played an important role in just about every war that America fought.

It should therefore come as no surprise that guns are once again playing an essential, if not a pivotal role in what is perhaps America’s longest-lasting war.  I’m not talking about Iraq or Afghanistan, although both of those conflicts have dragged on far too long.  I’m talking instead about America’s “culture” war for which guns and gun ownership have come to define both the ebb and flow of the conflict as well as the basic attitudes of both sides.

Guns were first tied to the culture war when Charlton Heston became NRA President in  1998.  Heston and other members of his Hollywood generation began turning conservative when Ronald Reagan, won the Presidency in 1980. But while Reagan boosted conservative fortunes he was always ambivalent about the culture war; kept evangelicals at arm’s length, was never seen inside a church, and rarely, if ever, invoked the virtues and values of gun ownership or membership in the NRA.  In fact, along with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, Reagan sent a letter to the House of Representatives in 1994 advocating an assault-rifle ban that was enacted later in the year.

Until the 2008 election of Obama, the culture war embraced issues like abortion and gay rights, both of which took precedence over guns.  And even though Bill Clinton blamed the 1994 Republican Congressional sweep and the 2000 defeat of Al Gore on the power of the NRA, the outcome of both elections couldn’t be tied specifically to anything having to do with guns.

The ascendency of guns in the cultural war didn’t reflect so much the growing power of the gun-owning lobby as it was the result of conservative shifts away from other issues for which they simply could not muster enough votes to win.  On abortion, for example, the nation appears evenly split but Rowe v. Wade is now forty years old and as women continue to move forward in the workplace and the professions, a woman’s right to choose seems fairly secure.  As for the gay issue, 19 states have now legalized same-sex marriage and last year the SCOTUS invalidated the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act which opens the door for many more states to lift their own gay marriage bans.

sarah                So as the older, hot-button cultural issues gradually wither away (remember something called English as the official language?), gun ownership and gun “rights” move to center stage.  And guns are a perfect means to build support for conservative cultural warriors because their ownership, after all, is enshrined in the most holy of all cultural holies, the Bill of Rights.  Even the leader of the liberals, whether he means it or not, is forced to sing hosannas to the 2nd Amendment as his shock-troops prepare to do battle against the other side.

The problem with cultural conflicts is they cannot be resolved with reference to facts.  Because as Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky pointed out long before the culture war rose to the level of conflict that we see today, people make decisions about things like gun ownership not because they understand or even care about whether a gun can or cannot protect them from harm, but whether ownership of a gun either supports or conflicts with their world view.  If both sides in the gun debate don’t find a way to resolve their arguments by reconciling larger cultural issues, it will drag on the way the Chaco War dragged on between Paraguay and Bolivia over a border that neither country could even find.

Everytown Vs. NRA: The Slugfest Begins

When former Mayor Mike Bloomberg first announced that he was ponying up $50 million to fund gun control, it didn’t take the NRA long to react.  They quickly published a long commentary on their NRA-ILA website that basically accused Bloomberg of buying his way into grass-roots advocacy by creating the illusion of a mass movement through “slickly-produced” television ads and other media-driven appeals.  The NRA glossed over the fact that some of Bloomberg’s money would go to augment the work of Shannon Watts and her Moms Demand Action campaign which has certainly become a national advocacy organization, even though the size of its membership doesn’t yet compare to the NRA.

I wrote a column on this blog when Bloomberg’s new campaign hit the wires in which I poured some cold water over his plan to fund political activity that would result in new gun control laws, particularly laws that widened the scope of background checks. But I focused more on whether the data on background checks really proved that it was an effective way to deal with gun violence, which I happen to believe is not the case.  I didn’t think it was yet time to judge the degree to which fifty million bucks, no matter how it was spent, might tilt the gun-control playing field away from the NRA.  But now I’m beginning to see the direction in which things seem to be going and I don’t think the news for the NRA is all that good.

bloomLast week Bloomberg’s newly-funded campaign, Everytown for Gun Safety, released a report on school shootings since Sandy Hook.  The report painted a grim picture of more than one shooting per week, and within 24 hours this statistic was repeated by President Obama and immediately went viral on Youtube and everywhere else.  The reaction to Obama’s comment was so intense on both sides was so intense that Politicfact.com ran one of its Pulitzer Prize-winning fact checks on the Everytown report and concluded that it “contained some elements of truth” but was “mostly false.”  Their judgement was based on the report’s counting of every gun incident whether it involved shooting at unarmed students or school staff at all, even including shootings that took place on school playgrounds at night after the school was closed.

Yesterday I received an email letter from the NRA that linked to a story about the Everytown report that is now posted on the website of the NRA-ILA.  And it was this email that made me begin to think that, when all is said and done, Bloomberg’s fifty million could make a difference in turning the advocacy tide against the NRA.  Because the problem with the NRA’s response to the school shootings report is not that what the NRA said was incorrect (it wasn’t,) nor that they quoted other sources who are generally pro-NRA (they didn’t.) The real problem is that unless you are a member of the NRA you’ll never even read their response, and successful advocacy ultimately gets down to who will listen to you and who won’t.

Despite all the nonsense about internet “democracy” and the ability of grass-roots movements to use the “free” digital environment to promote their points of view, the fact is that when Bloomberg says something that’s repeated by Obama and goes into overdrive on the internet, the former Mayor of New York is getting his message out to a much wider audience than any group which listens to the NRA.  Energizing gun owners to take sides in a pro-con debate over gun rights is a no-brainer that the NRA wins every time out. But getting non-gun owners, who are a majority of Americans, to understand and support the 2nd Amendment is a very different kettle of fish.  The NRA better figure out how to do it or Bloomberg will get his control agenda on the cheap.