Of late there seems to be lots of pitter-patter about national polls which show that Americans are in favor of expanded background checks but are against more gun control. The consensus among what I call the gun-sense community is that this contradiction is the result of the NRA’s relentless quest to make ‘gun control’ a toxic term. So an effort appears to be taking shape to find another way to describe measures that will curb gun violence without raising the hackles of 2nd-Amendment supporters and their political friends.
I think the polling results need to be understood in a different way. National polls tend to disguise the degree to which gun ownership varies enormously from place to place. More than two-thirds of the guns currently owned by Americans can be found in the 13 Old Confederate states, 3 border states and the rural swatches of 5 Midwest states. Together this territory contains about 40% of the U.S. population and, for the most part, politically speaking, is painted red. The remainder of the country, particularly the Northeast corridor, the West Coast and the urban Midwest, contains a majority of the U.S. population but also contains far fewer guns. In gun-rich states like North Carolina or Kansas, per capita gun ownership runs at least 50%. In states like New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, the number falls to 20% or even less.
Gun ownership has become a potent wedge issue for Republicans in gun-rich states. The redder the state, the more you hear appeals to ‘2nd-Amendment rights’ even when the politician making the appeal is talking about something that has nothing to do with guns. On the other hand, in Connecticut the NRA and its local allies couldn’t prevent Dannel Malloy from capturing a second term, and strident calls to gun owners to defeat the ‘gun-grabber’ may have actually widened his lead.
Meanwhile, even though a national poll might not accurately capture sentiment about gun control, how do we square those results with the polls which show an overwhelming support for additional gun control measures, such as expanding background checks? I have always been leery of assuming that just because a gun owner is in favor of keeping guns out of the “wrong hands,” he will turn around and support specific measures to accomplish that goal. If you were to tell a gun owner that expanding background checks to cover private sales is a good and proven way to keep guns out of the wrong hands, there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll say ‘count me in’. But if you tell him, which no poll that I know of has actually ever said, that making it harder for disqualified people to buy guns will mean that he can’t go to a gun shop, buy a rifle and then leave it under the tree for his son to unpack on Christmas Day, he’ll tell you to take your background checks and jump off you know where.
The reason that the NRA’s message about gun control is so effective is not so much because the average gun owner thinks that one day he will lose all his guns. There’s an element of that in the consciousness of gun folks, but much more in their minds is that almost all of them have not only shown themselves to be law-abiding as hell in order to own guns, but they have never even considered doing something illegal or dangerous with the guns they own. Given that case, why should they support new gun laws that will force them to jump through more legal hoops?
I don’t think my friends who advocate for more gun safety are going to get around this problem by calling gun control by another name while promoting sensible proposals that, by the way, will widen legal controls over guns. Which is no reason, of course, to stop or lessen meaningful strategies to make us safer from the violence caused by guns.