The U.S. Already Had a Conversation About Guns—and the Pro Side Won

Current policy isn't an NRA conspiracy. Americans have become increasingly opposed to controls even as debate on the subject rages.


All words offered in the aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting are inadequate to capture its tragedy, to comfort the grieving, or to explain why horrific crimes are perpetrated against children. The dead, whose names President Obama so affectingly read Sunday night, remind us that there is no escape from tragedy in this world, and that doing our part to make tragedy less common is a more urgent task than it sometimes seems. Awakened to that urgency, proponents of more gun control have understandably taken to the Internet in recent days to argue that epidemic gun violence in America makes tighter firearm restrictions a pressing imperative. I happen to agree, at least, that the gun-show loophole ought to be closed. Before I go any farther, I hereby urge any legislator inclined to listen to pass such a bill now.

Yet I am troubled by something I've noticed in many of the calls for more robust gun control: the conceit that it's a subject America has yet to debate -- that "the gun lobby" has somehow imposed its will on an unwilling citizenry, and that "a conversation about guns" must begin now. I'm all for more conversation about guns. It's just that we've already been having one for decades.

Pretending otherwise is pernicious, for reasons I'll soon explain. But first, a bit about the gun-control debate itself.

Shortly before the Newtown shooting, The Atlantic published an article by my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg on gun policy. He argued that the U.S. should tighten regulations to ensure that everyone who buys a gun is subject to a background check; ban high-capacity weapons that have "no reasonable civilian purpose;" and encourage lots more trained, vetted, law-abiding civilians to carry guns in public so that would-be mass murderers face resistance.

He isn't alone in having added to America's conversation about guns in the pages of this magazine. In September 2011, Adam Winkler suggested that Americans are often ignorant of the true history of guns in this country, noting (among other things) that the Founding Fathers "instituted gun laws so intrusive that, were they running for office today, the NRA would not endorse them." Few Americans even owned guns before the Civil War, Richard Slotkin wrote in November 2000, asking, "What happened?" [Note: Several alert readers point out something I hadn't realized - that the academic source cited in Richard Slotkin's article was widely celebrated when the article was published in 2000, but that the source's scholarship was later called into question, with Columbia University rescinding a prize it gave his work, and Emory University ultimately accepting his resignation. For a detailed rundown of the controversy go here.]

Daniel D. Polsby warned in 1994 that focusing on guns diverted our attention from the roots of our crime problem. Erik Larson pronounced that the United States was suffering from "a gun crisis" in a 1993 article tracing the history of a semi-automatic handgun used in a shooting at a suburban school. And Dorothy Weil satirized Second Amendment activism in 1977. In addition to those print articles, The Atlantic has published numerous web items about gun control in recent years that include perspectives on both sides of the issue. In the last several days we've produced all manner of analysis and opinion on the subject.

Although I am less familiar with archival articles from other magazines, I recall reading countless articles about gun violence over the years, watching TV programs that raised the issue, debating gun control in high school, college, and graduate school, helping The San Bernardino Sun to cover the subject after a stray bullet hit a young child, and seeing numerous bloggers weigh in on municipal firearms policies. In media and academia, I have seen calls for stricter gun control far more often than arguments for loosening restrictions on gun ownership, though I've seen the latter sort of piece with some frequency too. In short, gun control is a perennial controversy, the sort of controversial issue that Gallup tracks on an annual basis.

So what has been the result of decades of sustained public debate?

"Americans' support for stricter gun control laws has gradually declined over the last two decades, from 78% when this question was first asked in 1990 to 49% in 2008, and 44% in 2009 and again this year," Gallup reported in 2010 survey results. Said the organization in 2011:

A record-low 26% of Americans favor a legal ban on the possession of handguns in the United States other than by police and other authorized people. When Gallup first asked Americans this question in 1959, 60% favored banning handguns. But since 1975, the majority of Americans have opposed such a measure, with opposition around 70% in recent years.

In addition, it reported the revealed preference that almost half of Americans own at least one gun.

There isn't anything wrong with gun-control advocates lamenting what, by their lights, is a public that's reaching wrongheaded conclusions on the subject and is trending in the wrong direction.

But too many pieces I've read make a mockery of robust debate in a pluralistic society by ignoring the fact that current policy is largely (though not entirely) a reflection of the U.S. public disagreeing with gun reformers. The average American is far more likely than the average journalist or academic to identify with gun culture, to insist that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to bear arms, to exercise that right, and to support various state concealed-carry laws. Perhaps persuasion can move the citizenry to favor a different status quo. That's always a hurdle to clear in a democracy. Yet the ability to engage and persuade fellow citizens is undermined when public discourse obscures rather than confronts the relevant disagreements.

The problem goes beyond the absurd conceit that a conversation about guns had yet to begin prior to this week.

I'll give you an example.

In an Atlantic Wire post titled "It's Time We Talked About Gun Control," my sharp colleague Jen Doll writes, "We're going to have to talk about this; we're going to have to form coherent thoughts; and we're going to have to stop simply cleaving to our agendas and our selfish little opinions of what we want and what we think we should have -- and when 'the right time is' -- if this is ever going to get any better." But that isn't a call for a conversation! It's an assertion that opponents of gun control are selfish, and that they (not "we") are going to "have to" change their minds. It's fine to make that argument. The problem is couching it as a mere call for talking, when it is in fact an assertion that the only reasonable conclusion is that the other guys are wrong.

Says Nicholas Kristof in the Times, "We even regulate toy guns, by requiring orange tips -- but lawmakers don't have the gumption to stand up to National Rifle Association extremists and regulate real guns as carefully as we do toys. What do we make of the contrast between heroic teachers who stand up to a gunman and craven, feckless politicians who won't stand up to the N.R.A.?" As in so many pieces I've read, the NRA as an abstract entity is cast as the all-powerful villain. Ignored are the 4 million-plus individuals who belong to it and the tens of millions who are sympathetic to many of its arguments. If the NRA vanished tomorrow, all of those gun-loving Americans would still shape politicians' behavior. And some of those politicians aren't craven so much as in substantial agreement with the NRA.

As a point of contrast, my colleague James Fallows has recently published one post explaining why he is unpersuaded by the argument that more widespread conceal-and-carry would make America a safer place and another with "a constructive suggestion for the NRA." Both are examples of what an actual conversation about gun control looks like: acknowledging what some folks who disagree with you think and trying to persuade them otherwise.

Opponents of gun control have been widely vilified in the past week. Very few attempts have been made to understand what motivates them -- and given that they're a subset of Americans with little representation in the national media, attempts at understanding would likely do a lot to inform the rest of the American public. For the most part, these people aren't in fact motivated by selfishness, as so many critics have stated or implied in the last few days, and almost without exception, gun-control opponents are as horrified by the events in Newtown as anyone calling for a new assault-weapons ban or better background checks or a ban on ammunition.

The point isn't whether they're being treated fairly or not. It's that a gun debate can only be productive in a country as pro-gun as this one when the folks on either side at least understand the deeply held disagreements at issue. So far, too many newly vocal reformers are operating under the conceit that if only America "finally" had a conversation about gun violence, everyone would immediately see the wisdom of the position reformers have advocated all along. One need only to reflect on the state of public opinion after decades of debating the issue to conclude that the conversational outcome many reformers presume isn't at all certain.