A Trigger for Talk

Article excerpt

Byline: Kristin A. Goss

Public opinion on gun control is as polarized as it has ever been. And our policy won't change until we--family, friends, neighbors--engage in thousands of intimate conversations.

Whenever America suffers a mass public shooting--seven times in 2012 alone--a[umlaut]I think about my dad and our months of wrenching conversations after the Columbine High School massacre more than a decade ago.

A Colorado farm boy who grew up with guns and displayed the family rifle in his study, Dad agreed with the National Rifle Association that an armed population was a bulwark against tyranny. His wayward daughter had gone east to college (never good) and settled in Washington, D.C., the nation's "murder capital." While he feared the government, I was more afraid of muggers and rapists.

But Dad and I had this in common: the shooting at Columbine, just a few miles west of my high school, shook us deeply. When Coloradans had the opportunity to close the "gun-show loophole" by requiring background checks on private sales, Dad and 70 percent of his fellow voters said yes, because "something had to be done." I went on to write a scholarly book critical of the "ban all handguns" approach of early gun-control advocates. I'd like to believe that Dad and I learned something from each other.

The Sandy Hook massacre has renewed calls for a "national conversation" on guns. In an earlier age, when we all tuned in to the same nightly news broadcasts and came together in the same nation-spanning associations, such a conversation might have made sense, but it's not even remotely possible in today's fractured America. Instead, we must have millions of unfiltered, nuanced, and possibly unpleasant individual conversations, the kind Dad and I had, about the scourge of firearms violence. Policy won't change until we do, but the good news is that there has not been a better time in decades to begin such conversations in earnest.

Admittedly, the task won't be easy. The gun debate has long been dominated by the National Rifle Association, whose 3 million to 4 million members vote and otherwise engage at levels unmatched by their adversaries. And the NRA has deep pockets, donating 3,200 times as much as a leading opponent in the 2012 election cycle and spending 73 times as much on lobbying in the most recent Congress, according to the Sunlight Foundation. For at least a decade, most national Democrats have kept their heads down, hoping the gun issue will go away, while Republicans have trumpeted their Second Amendment credentials at every opportunity.

The growing partisan divide extends to the American public. In a 1999 survey, the gap between Republicans and Democrats on most questions was fairly narrow: Republicans were just 6 percentage points less likely than Democrats to favor a ban on high-capacity magazines; 6 percentage points more likely to believe that gun laws were too strict; and 14 points more likely to believe that a gun makes the home safer. But in a Pew Research Center poll taken after the Sandy Hook massacre, the partisan gap on similar questions was markedly wider. Republicans were 16 percentage points less likely to favor banning high-capacity magazines, and roughly 30 percentage points more likely to believe that guns enhance safety. Indeed, over the last two decades, Pew found a 27-point rise among Republicans who believe that it's more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns than to control gun ownership. For Democrats, sentiment fluctuated slightly but remained essentially unchanged over time.

Gun-rights supporters offer a variety of arguments--some of them admirable in intent, others of them antidemocratic, even dangerous. While my dad saw gun owners as an army of patriots prepared to defend against a coup, today's gun-rights activists emphasize what they see as threats from within--lawful immigrants, welfare recipients, "socialists" in Congress--advancing their issues through the democratic process. …