By Khalil Spencer.
I have published nearly 400 op-ed pieces on guns, which adds up to more than 240,000 words. But until two weeks ago, when I posted a column about the November 3rd gun violence event at Washington’s National Cathedral, I hadn’t written a single word about the question of gun violence and religious faith, which the more I think about it, deserves a central place in the gun debate.
Part of my reluctance to write about guns and religion stems from the fact that I’m not particularly religious. So I don’t instinctively think about religion or faith when I’m constructing an argument about guns or anything else. But the good folks at the National Cathedral just sent me a notice about the Gun Violence Sabbath Weekend taking place on December 10-14, and the scope and depth of this remarkable event needs to be recognized and considered even by a non-religious sort like myself.
The event is actually designed to inject the issue of gun violence into the religious services of Christians, Jews, Islam, Hindus, Sikhs, Universalists and Buddhists – I hope I have them all. Similar events took place in 2014 engaging more than 1,200 congregations and worship sites forming a virtual coalition between the National Cathedral, the Newtown Foundation, Faiths United To Prevent Gun Violence and other faith-based and anti-violence groups.
I’m going to assume that if 1,000 congregations of different faiths choose to dedicate a Sabbath observance to gun violence that easily a million people could be involved in thinking about this issue over the four-day period beginning December 10th. But it occurs to me that there’s one national organization that is somewhat conspicuous by its absence from the event, and that organization happens to be the NRA. And the reason I say that is because the annual NRA fest, which will be held next year in Louisville, always includes a prayer breakfast which, according to the 2016 program, will present speakers “who will challenge you with stirring words of freedom and faith.” So if religious belief can be used both to invoke the Lord’s guidance for those who want to end gun violence, as well as to invoke God’s blessing over those whose devotion to their guns ultimately results in 30,000+ deaths each year, how do we reconcile these two seemingly-contradictory views of faith?
I found an answer to that question in the sermon preached by The Very Reverend Gary Hall who will retire as Dean of the National Cathedral shortly after the December GVP event. Reverend Hall preached this message on December 16, 2012, just two days after the Sandy Hook massacre that took the lives of 20 first-graders plus 6 adults. After recounting his own reaction and the reactions of others to the horrifying event, Dr. Hall turned to the question that had to be answered: “What are we, as people of faith, to do?” And to answer that question, he reminded the Congregation of their sacred duty: “As Christians, we are obligated to heal the wounded, protect the vulnerable, and stand for peace. “
But if, as Reverend Hall went on to say, the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby, then shouldn’t people who devote themselves to the cross also be out there talking to people who devote themselves to guns? I’ve never attended the NRA prayer breakfast, but I’m sure the audience considers themselves to be persons of deep faith. And don’t ask me how, don’t ask me why, but the religious ‘faith’ of those Republican Presidential candidates always seems to go hand-in-hand with their unwavering support for 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’
Don’t get me wrong. Reverend Hall’s post-Newtown uplifting sermon was a powerful antidote to Wayne LaPierre’s fear-mongering rant which constituted the NRA’s response to Sandy Hook. But there are plenty of people out there who still want to cling both to their religion and their guns. The faith-based coalition that will come together around the country on December 10-14 might consider ways to reach those folks as well.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, public opinion polls appeared to show widespread support for strengthening gun laws that would make it more difficult for ‘prohibited persons’ to gain access to guns. In particular, support was strongest for an extension of the NICS background check system to cover most secondary transfers of firearms beyond the initial, counter-top transfer that is covered now. It was this public sentiment which led to the crafting of such legislation, known as Manchin-Toomey, which nevertheless fell short of the votes needed to move the bill through the Senate in April, 2013.
One of the post-Newtown polls showing wide, public support for expanded background checks was conducted by researchers at the Bloomberg Public Health School at Johns Hopkins University, and now that I’ve mentioned the unmentionable, those readers in the pro-gun community will please do everyone a favor and keep their comments to themselves. The bottom line from this survey was that gun owners and non-gun owners expressed similar degrees of support for universal background checks, prohibitions on ownership for persons convicted of violating domestic restraining orders and mandatory sentences for gun traffickers. Where significant differences appeared between the two groups, however, involved ‘bans’ on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; the word ‘ban’ being toxic to gun owners but much less concerning to those who don’t own guns.
The Bloomberg group has just released a new poll which, in terms of methodology and sampling, more or less replicates the same poll that was published in 2013. It will shortly appear in the journal Preventive Medicine, but I was able to examine an advance copy of the text. The authors note that in the intervening two years since their last survey, public opinion appears to have shifted away from more gun regulations and is now swinging towards stronger support of ‘gun rights.’ But comparing such data to the more specific policy-oriented questions which comprise this new survey is really oranges versus apples, since such phrases as ‘gun rights’ and ‘gun control’ are simply too vague and too loaded to explain much about public opinion at all.
The new Bloomberg survey shows that there remains a basic bedrock of public opinion that expanding background checks to secondary gun transfers is a good thing to do. In 2013, support for this measure among gun owners and non-gun owners was above 80%, both numbers shifted only slightly in the current survey and the difference between gun owners and non-gun owners was negligible at best. On the other side of the ledger, i.e., banning assault rifles and high-capacity mags, there was again a decisive difference between gun owners who said ‘no’ and non-gun owners who said ‘yes,’ although in this case the percentage of non-gun owners who favored weapon and ammunition bans appears to have slipped.
What I find significant is that 45% of gun owners in both surveys support bans on the sale of assault rifles and high-cap mags. Researchers who focus on policy issues traditionally look for majority opinion as a guide to what may or may not be possibly changed in the public domain. But the fact that slightly less than half of all gun owners support the ban on assault rifles is a finding which needs to be considered on its own terms.
I can’t think of a single issue that has generated more noise and more hype in the gun community than the issue of assault rifles over the last several years. From the phony attempt by the NSSF to dress up these guns as ‘modern sporting rifles,’ to the prancing around by Colion Noir, the industry has done everything it can to promote these guns as akin to motherhood and apple pie. That nearly 50% of gun owners don’t buy this nonsense should give pause to those who still regard the NRA as a behemoth when it comes to influencing public opinion about guns. To me, it’s more like a case of the emperor without clothes.
Has anyone noticed what’s been happening to the gun business lately? Smith & Wesson stock has collapsed, it’s trading for about half of the price of just five months’ ago; third-quarter net sales at Ruger dropped from $170 million to $98 million from the same quarter a year ago; and the industry’s most venerable gun maker – Colt – might have closed its doors altogether had it not been saved by a last-minute loan.
Gun sales started to slow down during the summer, which is normally when everyone in the gun industry takes a deep breath and begins planning for the fall and winter months when most of the industry’s sales take place. But not only didn’t the usual rebound occur after Labor Day, they stayed flat in September and then really began to go South. If you had purchased 10,000 shares of S&W on June 19, your investment today would be worth less than six thousand bucks. Meanwhile, the Dow during that same five-month period has surged upward by more than six percent.
The gun industry usually uses the monthly NICS background check number to chart sales trends, but lately those numbers simply don’t square with the market conditions that have affected the balance sheets ot companies like Ruger, Colt and Smith. While NICS checks have certainly dropped from the more than 2 million monthly numbers that were recorded at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, the numbers just published for October showed a slight increase over the previous month and the September number was the second-highest September ever recorded by NICS since the system became fully operational in 1999.
I’m going to tell you a dirty little secret about those NICS numbers. What they really show is that more gun owners are registering gun transactions with NICS whether they need to or not. In some states, like Connecticut, NICS calls are much higher because the new law requires that all gun transfers between individuals, not just between dealers and purchasers, go through NICS. New York State, where Andy pushed through a universal background check law right after Sandy Hook, is now running 30,000 checks a month when the state averaged less than 20,000 monthly before Sandy Hook. Right after Connecticut mandated universal background checks there was stupid talk by Glenn Beck and other NRA apologists about how Connecticut gun owners were going to stage massive disobedience against the registration requirements of the new law. These are the same [expletive-deleted] loudmouths who never miss the opportunity to remind the rest of us how ‘law abiding’ gun owners tend to be. Now these law-abiding patriots are going to start lining up to break the law? Give me a friggin’ break.
Gun sales have always been a function of one thing and one thing only, namely, a fear among gun owners that the guns are going to be taken away. Right after the World Trade Center attack there was a brief spike in sales, but by the time it was noticed, it had already disappeared. Even before Obama started talking about a gun bill after Newtown, Dianne Feinstein rolled out her assault rifle ban, and within two weeks you couldn’t find a black gun on any dealer’s shelves. I was selling the Stag AR-15 Model 3 in my shop when I could get them, for a thousand bucks a pop and other dealers were marking them up even more. Today I can go online and buy one for $736.89.
I don’t think the drop-off in gun sales will end anytime soon, particularly now that both legislative chambers in Washington are painted red. But I also don’t think that the vulnerability of the gun industry will make its leadership more amenable to discussing effective strategies to curb the misuse of guns. Because the one thing they know above all is that the anticipation of new gun controls will spur sales, but after the law is passed, gun ownership always declines. If it goes much lower, the gun business will be in for a very rough time.