Guns – as tools of security, as instruments of violence – shape the lives of millions of Americans. Gun purchasing surged in 2020 – and so did gun crime. After three high-profile mass shootingswithin two weeks in March, debates surrounding firearms are intensifying once again. Yet despite their centrality in our personal and political lives, myths about guns are widespread.
Imagine the “typical” gun owner. If you know the demographics, you’ll probably picture a White, conservative guy who lives in the South, the West or the Midwest. Gun owners, as a political bloc, are much more likely to vote Republican. Republicans often promote the partisan stereotype, as when Rep. Lauren Boebert (Colo.) strapped a Glock to her hip as she challenged Democrats to let her bring a gun into the Capitol. Headlines that ask “Why Are Conservatives So Obsessed with Guns?” further reinforce this impression about gun owners’ political identities.
The gap between perception and reality is understandable: In the so-called “post-Columbine” era, mass shootings, though less common than other kinds of gun violence, have become more frequent and more intensively covered. And though violent gun crime — like any broad category of crime — follows aggregate trends, it is not evenly distributed: Underserved communities of color experience higher ratesof gun violence than the rest of the country. Still, until recently, violent gun crime has been dropping for decades, in what scholars including Patrick Sharkey have labeled the “Great American Crime Decline.” Overall, we live in a far less violent society than 30 years ago.
In 1996, amid backlash to two major federal gun laws — the Brady Bill and the Assault Weapons Ban — Congress passed the Dickey Amendment, named for its sponsor, Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.). That measure stipulated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” In the years since, headlines have described a federal funding “freeze” or “drought,” or claimed that “gun violence research has been shut down for 20 years.”
In terms of dollar amounts, this was a huge blow to gun research. Nevertheless, federally funded gun research marched on – just not from a public health perspective. Instead, criminal justice approaches have dominated federally funded gun research, with the National Institute of Justice leading the way in terms of the number of studies funded and the amount funded, as my co-author Rina James and I discuss in a forthcoming study. (I know firsthand that the federal government funds such research: I receive funding from the National Science Foundation to study how survivors experience the aftermath of gun violence in California and Florida.) It matters not just whether the federal government funds gun research but also how: A criminal justice-focused approach crowds out other ways of thinking about, and crafting public policy regarding, guns rights and gun harm.
The National Rifle Association’s deep pockets, tight connections to Republican politicians and hard-line rhetoric give it huge influence over gun policy in the United States. It also earmarks a significant portion of its organizational efforts toward lobbying, via the NRA Institute for Legislative Action. Understandably, there’s a widespread perception that the vast majority of the group’s activities take place in the political sphere, lobbying against gun restrictions: It has been called the “most powerful special interest in Washington” by Business Insider and “the nation’s most powerful lobby” by PBS. In a 2013 letter resigning his membership, Adolphus Busch IV complained that, “The NRA appears to have evolved into the lobby for gun and ammunition manufacturers rather than gun owners.”
But the NRA invests just as heavily in shaping gun culture through its magazine and digital media presence, annual meetings, firearms museum and firearms training courses, according to research by Noah Schwartz, a PhD candidate at Carleton University. These training opportunities range from non-firearm “Refuse to be a Victim” courses to more advanced courses on pistols, rifles and armed self-defense. The over a million people who go through the NRA’s courses every year learn much more than how to safely handle and shoot a firearm, as I explore in my book “Citizen-Protectors”: These courses also encourage people to see gun carrying as an act of moral responsibility and the NRA as a guarantor of the ability to do so.
If someone seeks out firearms training (as required by most U.S. concealed carry licensing laws), there’s a good chance they’ll be receiving NRA-affiliated instruction. This positions the NRA not just to shape gun policy from above, but also shape gun culture from the ground up.
For the past 10 years, the public has been stuck at a persistent 50-50 divide about whether to — in the word of Pew pollsters — “control gun ownership” or “protect the right of Americans to own guns.” Publications including the Boston Globe, Time and the New York Times have published conversations between people with opposing viewpoints on guns, bridging what’s characterized as an irreconcilable gap.
Finally, “tough on crime” gun policies have been largely popular across the gun divide, including mandatory and enhanced sentencing laws related not just to firearms use but also firearms possession. Much like the broader infrastructure of the War on Crime, however, “tough on crime” gun policies have been detrimental to communities of color, as James Forman Jr. shows in “Locking Up Our Own.” Rather than addressing root causes of gun violence, our agreed-upon policies may instead run the risk of compounding the trauma already experienced by underserved communities. Indeed, we’ve been so preoccupied on whether we could agree on gun policy — to paraphrase”Jurassic Park’s” Ian Malcolm — that we’ve often forgot to consider whether we should.
Originally published by The Washington Post.