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What Happened to Gun Control After Newtown?

Yale law professor Dan Kahan has persuasively argued that the reason why we seem like two ships passing in the night when debating gun issues is because people disagree about the facts, as they see them:

Gun-control proponents argue that greater restrictions will promote public safety by reducing gun violence and accidents, while gun-control opponents argue that such restrictions will diminish public safety on net by rendering innocent persons unable to defend themselves from violent criminals. We hypothesized that individuals' cultural worldviews would determine which of these empirical claims they accept.

And Kahan's hypothesis turned out to be correct: one's cultural worldview -- hierarchical, individualist, egalitarian, solidaristic -- explained, more than any other variable (e.g., conservative, liberal, gun owner, from the South, black, white & c.), how one viewed the "facts" of gun control.

But after Adam Lanza -- who almost certainly suffered from some form of mental illness -- killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut, some sort of gun control measure seemed sure to come out of Congress. The most promising measure appeared to extending background checks beyond their current reach:

Extending background checks to firearms purchases at gun shows and over the Internet, with the aim of making it harder for felons and the mentally ill to acquire weapons, remains popular and not just among liberals. According to a CBS News/New York Times poll taken in the days after the Biden meeting, 92 percent of Americans favored universal background checks. A poll conducted by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz indicated that there was 74 percent approval among self-identified N.R.A. members -- in keeping with the 77 percent approval in a survey of hunters commissioned by the Bull Moose Sportsmen's Alliance.

 

So how did a policy that polled so well fail? In large part due to the National Rifle Association's intense lobbying against it in the Senate, and its perceived strength as a lobbying group who, if crossed, will make sure there are electoral consequences for those politicians who do not support their broad view of the Second Amendment and its freedoms. Many conservative legislators value their "A" rating from the NRA and are remiss to vote on any legislation that would endanger such.

And so the NRA convinced 46 Senators to vote "no" on the Machin-Toomey bill (Manchin is a gun-enthusiast Democrat from West Virginia, Pat Tommey is a very conservative Senator from Pennsylvania). Nearly every senator who was on the fence was flooded with calls from NRA members and other, smaller gun rights organization, that were overwhelmingly against the bill. The NRA won again.

However, it appears unlikely that the NRA's simplistic message will continue to be viable:

The N.R.A.'s signature method of recruitment, however, is to play on the fears of gun enthusiasts with over-the-top claims that President Obama and his administration will not rest "until they've banned, confiscated and destroyed our guns, just like they did in England and Australia."

Moreover, while the NRA has owned the gun issue for the past generation or so, future successes on the legislative front aren't assured:

Time does not seem to be on the N.R.A.'s side. According to data compiled by the nonpartisan National Opinion Research Center, between 1977 and 2012 the percentage of American households possessing one or more guns declined by 36 percent.

So while Kahan is right about the low probabilities of gun control advocates accomplishing anything in the short term, they may take some succor in knowing that the NRA's power is likely on the wane.


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