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.