Why Conservatives Mistrust Even Modest Efforts at Gun Control

Liberals tend to blame the gun lobby for blocking new regulations, but they dismiss firearm owners’ fear of government at their own political peril.

Jason Redmond / Reuters

Here we are again: Another massacre, another discussion about gun control—not about instituting new gun controls, mind you, but about why such new regulations are almost certainly dead on arrival.

An angry but resigned President Obama lashed out Thursday night. “We’ve become numb to this,” he said. “We talked about this after Columbine, Blacksburg, Tucson, Newtown, Aurora, after Charleston …. This is a political choice that we make, to allow this to happen every few months in America.”

While Obama has repeatedly called for new gun controls, those attempts have hit a wall in Congress. Furthermore, of the gun laws enacted at the state level since the Newtown massacre, more have actually loosened restrictions than tightened them. Firearm production and sales have also increased since Obama took office.

The common liberal explanation for why this has happened is the entrenched power of the gun lobby—the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers. This isn’t wrong. The NRA’s power is considerable and it is carefully and effectively wielded. But focusing exclusively on the lobbying angle overlooks the very real fear and distrust with which many gun owners regard the government that drives much of the opposition to gun laws. Many of them simply don’t believe that enhanced background checks—or whatever other modest changes are proposed—are what they appear to be.

Take it from Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia who was a prime driving force behind the failed early 2013 attempt to pass strong background checks.

“They’re scared this is the first step,” Manchin said at New York Ideas that year. “When you say universal background check, the first thing that comes in the mind of a gun owner is that means registration, and registration means confiscation. ‘I haven’t broken the laws, why do you want to know everything?’”

This distrust helps to explain one of the central paradoxes of the gun-control debate. How can it be that vast majorities of Americans, including gun owners, favor stricter background checks, and yet there’s not the political will to pass them? One reason is that theoretical support for checks is different than trust the Obama administration to institute them. Every time the president changes a stance or exercises presidential power—for example, issuing an executive order to allow DREAMers and their families to stay after saying he couldn’t—it adds fuel to the worry: Look, he said he couldn’t and wouldn’t do this with executive authority. Why should we believe he won’t do the same with guns?

One thing Obama said Thursday particularly triggered this fear. “We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings,” he said. “Friends of ours, allies of ours—Great Britain, Australia, countries like ours. So we know there are ways to prevent it.”

After a 1996 massacre in Port Arthur, Australia significantly tightened its laws. The legislation “outlawed automatic and semi-automatic rifles, as well as pump-action shotguns. A nationwide gun buyback scheme also saw more than 640,000 weapons turned in to authorities,” NBC explains. (If you have progressive friends on Facebook, you’ve almost certainly seen the viral video of Aussie comedian Jim Jeffries talking about gun control down under.) The mention of Australia is coded language to conservatives, as the writer Charles C.W. Cooke noted:

Politically, this may seem absurd. Obama may personally think confiscating guns is a great idea, but there’s no prospect that he could get such a policy enacted into law—and if he did, the Supreme Court’s recent precedents on the Second Amendment make it unlikely the law would stand. No one needs to guess what policy Obama might actually back in Congress, because he already tried: It was modest. And it failed.

Psychologically, however, supporters of gun control ignore this attitude at their own political risk. In fact, the professional advocates have already taken it into account—as Molly Ball reported in 2013, they’ve adopted language intended to be more value-  (and fear-) neutral: “gun violence,” “reducing gun violence,” “gun-violence legislation.” (Not that it’s helped them much.)

Do gun lobbyists work to encourage and exploit this fear? Of course they do. Here’s a series of recent emails on the mailing list of the National Association of Gun Rights, which split from the NRA because it considered the older organization too soft:

But even if these worries about confiscation seem politically misplaced, and even they are encouraged by political advocates (psychological persuasion is, after all, what political advocates on all sides do), that doesn’t mean they are fake or easily dismissed. Any attempt to reform gun laws will have to grapple with this fear of government.