Reasonable Gun Laws: An Opportunity for the Return of the Moderate Republican

Forgotten Future

Forgotten Future (Photo credit: much0)

“Everything is hard before it is easy.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It was 2005. I was sitting in the Senate Commerce Committee room at a hearing, and Senator John McCain was a little teed off. What set him off was a little speech by then-Senator George Allen of Virginia (yes, the “macaca” fellow) about how seat belt laws were evidence of the “nanny state.”

Senator McCain took a very different view, pointing to their role in saving lives and talking about his support for the automotive safety measures in the bill then being considered. The proposal — which included new safety rules on vehicle rollover (which at the time claimed 9,000 lives per year) and roof strength (critical to surviving a rollover crash), and required safety test results to be put on dealer’s window stickers at the point of sale — were common-sense advances for public safety, in Senator McCain’s enlightened view. The measures also received critical support from Senator Mike DeWine, a socially conservative Republican from Ohio, whose young family member tragically had died in an auto crash.

After five years of our work with a group of allies — and with the laudable assistance of the current head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), David Strickland, who was a Senate staffer for the Committee at the time — the safety rules became law. The auto industry predictably opposed them, and did manage, even after they were enacted, to persuade NHTSA under President Bush to gut a few of them in practice. But in the main, the rules stuck, and when President Obama came to office, it became possible to restore the law’s intent.

It is clear, given the events of the past week and the intense public response to the Sandy Hook shootings, that there is now, for the first time in a long while, an opening for new and more sensible rules to both require and encourage responsible gun ownership. What’s less clear is how new measures could pass in the current climate of polarization in the Congress and in many state-houses.

A sustained campaign to ensure that voters and lawmakers understand the issues in terms of a public safety problem that must be addressed with competent government action and oversight would be a game-changer, and opens the possibility that more reasonable Republicans will vote for needed reforms, or even lead, as Mayor Bloomberg has done. The power of Sandy Hook to change minds has already been shown in statements by conservative commentator Joe Scarborough, and by former gun-rights Democrats like Senators Reid, Manchin and Casey, all of whom have indicated their change of heart on the issue of restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

George Lakoff, in his landmark book on political frameworks, Don’t Think of an Elephant, describes how progressives and conservatives use different family models to understand the proper role for government. While progressives use a “nurturing” model, conservatives have in mind the “strict father” who sets out the rules for the family. Although Lakoff doesn’t spend much time meditating on the multiple dimensions of this father figure in his book, what I have observed in pushing for public safety reforms and trying to work on a bi-partisan basis is this: embedded in the conservative vision of this “strict father” is a strong duty to protect the family from harm.

When no one can ensure safety and public health without government action, “nanny state”-type objections become irrelevant for most reasonable people, many of whom are independent or Republican voters. Over time, the new standards for public safety become habit for both industry and individuals — a benefit that saves lives without anyone even noticing. Seat belt laws — which were so controversial that their enactment required a state-by-state strategy focused first on laws requiring children to be buckled up — are now ho-hum stuff, Senator Allen’s knee-jerk speech notwithstanding.

Fixing our nation’s gun problem should also, someday off in the foreseeable future, be nothing more than a rather boring set of rules overseen by a decently funded, well-run federal agency with state-level support and assistance. Adequately trained hunters and sportsmen should be able to license a gun when they want to, suitable for those purposes, while criminals and people deemed mentally incompetent should not.

The paranoia that is driving up gun purchases — and profits for gun manufacturers and dealers — over the past week (and the years since Obama was elected) is unwarranted. And no one should even have to think about whether a bullet-proof backpack for a six-year-old (!) is a good use of $200 when basically almost anything else would be a better Christmas present.

Sadly, we are now far from that day. The federal regulator in charge of guns works part-time, and lobbying by the National Rifle Association has blocked all attempts to confirm a permanent executive to the post, holding up Senate confirmations under two Administrations. As I wrote in my last post, and as further explained here, the NRA’s efforts have also meant that the agency is poorly funded and equipped for its assignment, legally unable to even collect basic data on the number and type of guns sold, to keep them out of the hands of people deemed mentally incompetent by another government agency, or to evolve new and better monitoring systems.

Sensible safety measures regarding gun sales will save the lives of children in all of our communities. A recent Children’s Defense Fund report dedicated to Trayvon Martin that examined gun-related deaths in 2008 and 2009 found the following shocking facts:

  • The total number of preschool-age children killed by guns during those years — 173 — was nearly double the number of law-enforcement officers — 89 — killed in the line of duty.
  • African-American children and teens represented 45 percent of all guns deaths in their age group in 2008 and 2009, but only 15 percent of the total U.S. population of children.
  • The top cause of death for black teens ages 15 to 19 was gun homicide, while for white teens it was motor vehicle accidents followed by gun homicides.
  • More children and teens died from gunfire in 2008 and 2009 — 5,750 — than the number of U.S. military personnel killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Among 23 high-income countries in the world scholars have studied, the United States is home to 80 percent of all gun deaths, and 87 percent of all gun deaths of children younger than 15.

The risks to our children and their safety from our virtually unrestricted trade in guns is indisputable, and the chance to act is now. Despite how it seems after the fact, no safety or public health advance is easy or lacking in controversy at the time. Yet such moments present an opportunity to speak to people in a compelling way about how communities — and families — must come together to save lives and protect our children from harm.

With a record-high 53 percent of American voters saying in a new poll that the Republican party is now “too extreme” and public polls showing widespread support for restrictions, it’s also an opportunity for more reasonable lawmakers to lead by showing that they are willing to put public safety ahead of their political backers and the profits of the gun industry. Caring for our children is a bi-partisan activity: it’s about time it looked like one.

6 thoughts on “Reasonable Gun Laws: An Opportunity for the Return of the Moderate Republican

  1. Umm, ya. Austrailia put in more gun restrictions for similar reasons. The laws lasted about ten years until they reverted back to free gun control. Why?…. Well they discovered that the suicides, murders, rapes, robberied, etc. all skyrocketed after the changes and finally linked it to the laws. So what happened after the laws went back to former ways? Crime rates went back to former levels, that’s what.
    Let’s learn from other’s mistakes before making giant leaps at gun control. As a mother, my first instict is to take all of the guns away too, but not after understanding this Austrailian lesson. Our forefathers knew what they were doing when they wrote the Bill of Rights. There was more than just the need to eat meat for them and a reason one might often see portraits with their little boys holding rifles on their laps…. it was a statement.

    • Hi Brook, Thanks so much for your comment. You do not cite a source on the Aussie experience with gun control, and I was intrigued, so I did a Google search on “Australian Gun Control Lessons.”

      Funny thing, but one of the top links was a USA today editorial from mid-December of 2012 that completely contradicts your description of what happened (http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2012/12/18/gun-control-port-arthur/1778519/). From the article:

      So, when a gunman killed 35 people in 1996 with a semiautomatic rifle in the tourist town of Port Arthur, on the island of Tasmania, the Australian people decided it was time for a change.
      A new law, backed by a conservative prime minister, divided firearms into five categories. Some of the deadliest assault-style weapons and large ammunition clips are now all but impossible for individuals to lawfully own.
      Firearms are subject to a strict permitting process, and dealers are required to record sales, which are tracked by the national and territorial governments. What’s more, the law encouraged people to sell their firearms back to the government, which purchased and destroyed about 700,000 of them.
      The results are hard to argue with. According to a Harvard University study, 13 gun massacres (in which four or more people died) occurred in the 18 years before the law was enacted. In the 16 years since there has been none. Zero.
      The overall firearm homicide rate dropped from 0.43 per 100,000 in the seven years before the law to 0.25 in the seven years after. By 2009, the rate had dropped further, to just 0.1 per 100,000, or one per million.
      In the USA, the 2009 firearm homicide rate was 3.3 per 100,000, some 33 times higher than Australia’s.”

      It seems that the ban has both been effective and still remains in place.

      I also just don’t buy the argument that the framers of the Constitution (or ordinary citizens of the time) thought of this as an individual right. While an image of a child holding a gun in those days may have conveyed responsibility, times have changed, and responsible gun ownership is completely compatible with reasonable regulations that balance public safety with that right, as we do when we drive a car.

      I think, moreover, the framers would be deeply impressed by the fact that our democracy has been stable enough to allow the peaceful transfer of power for centuries. I fail to see the need for high-powered weapons designed to be used on humans, and enormous ammunition magazines that serve only to allow rampages.

      • Hello again,
        Knowing full well that I am no statistician I won’t haggle one article over another, but I read about this gun control law change in a book by Malcom Gladwell. He does a pretty good job of citing his refrences, but I would have to dig back through it again to double check.
        I do remember the “Trolly Square” incident very keenly here in Utah however. This is a very gun friendly state in general. The incident would have been a lot worse if the shooter hadn’t been taken out so quickly.
        While I am not in league with giving guns over to every Tom Dick and Harry (who would likely send them straight over our borders to the South) I also do not believe in strict regulations on guns. We the people are our brothers keepers and if we do a good enough job they’ll know it and mind their p’s and q’s. Just my opinion here.
        In fact I would be comforted to know there are at least 2-3 appointed persons carrying guns for student protection on any campus (Elementary included). My husband agrees but adds that those people should not be disclosed for higher security. I feel one gun wouldn’t be enough just in case that one person is the wacko, but two or more ought to do it. Especially if they didn’t know who the others were. Makes it a lot harder to plan anything horrid.
        I know you probably don’t agree with the above, but I guess that is the real point isn’t it. There are a lot of folks out there and ALL of them with strong opinions on how to protect our kids. We are all right in our own way as far as ‘intentions’ are concerned. I just hope another Bill of Right doesn’t get bamboozled from us the way the ‘Patriot Act’ has done. Death sometimes comes in small silent steps, waiting untilthe dominoes are aligned. I love America. Times do change, but seriously, do we really know more about government than the founders did? They gave us peace, (fought hard for it too). We make war in the name of the protection (and increase) of property (for big business outside of our own borders). In this way guns are completely out of control and there is where I agree to strict gun conrol laws.
        I hope you don’t mind my ranting (For ranting it is). I appreciate there being a place out in cyberspace to air it out. Thank You.

      • Hi Brook, I so appreciate your taking the time to comment and sharing your views. As you surmised, I strongly disagree that more guns in more hands makes us safer. For evidence, I’ll simply point to two recent stories: one, from Mother Jones, describes a study they did of public mass shootings and involvement by bystanders with weapons (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/armed-civilians-do-not-stop-mass-shootings), finding that most of the time, the armed civilians die in confronting the shooter; and two, this moving and well-reported story on an experiment of sorts with restorative justice (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/06/magazine/can-forgiveness-play-a-role-in-criminal-justice.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0) — while the story is rich with possible interpretations, I also have to agree with the victim’s mother, who observed that if a shotgun had not been in the house the day of her daughter’s shooting, her daughter would likely still be alive. This I find terribly sad. At any rate, I am grateful for the dialogue, and wish you a good day — all best, Laura

  2. Great post, Laura.

    Have you read Lakoff’s book, Moral Politics? He goes into much more detail on the family metaphors there. I think you’re right. We can tap into that protective function of strict fathers. How do we prevent it from translating into: the solution is more guns…. Shoot the shooter…. Trained shooters in every school?

    • Thanks, Kylie! I haven’t read Moral Politics, but I love his book on metaphors. I’ll add it to my reading list! In terms of your question, I think we take those on based on the facts, as they are simply impractical responses in terms of cost, and in terms of how schools and public places should work. A shooter at every mall or school? Please. The expense alone is ridiculous to contemplate. And the evidence on whether armed citizens are ever successful in stopping crimes in progress is also clear that only trained law enforcement personnel have a chance at being effective at it. It would be easy to do a debunker on these! Perhaps I will, though I had hoped to spend this week on posts on green Xmas gifts! Oh well. I go where my heart leads me. Cheers, Laura

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