PBS’ Gunned Down: My Review

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As an NRA Life Member, I get emails from all the pro-gun organizations and the last several days my Inbox had plenty of communications about the PBS documentary which aired last night. As you can also probably imagine, the warnings from the pro-gun crowd ran from dire to much worse.  I should add that in this case I was also contacted by PBS who asked me to preview the show which I did, and here’s what I saw.

My gun friends who subscribe to the Charlton Heston battle-cry “from my cold, dead hands” had nothing to fear. The documentary is an extremely balanced view of the NRA’s defeat of the federal gun bills in 1999 and again in 2013. Some of the program’s newsreel footage is not for the faint of heart, particularly films from Columbine High School, the shooting of Gabby Giffords and the slaughter at Sandy Hook.  There is also some candid commentary from pro-gun advocates like Larry Pratt and an emotion-laden “How could they vote that way?” complaint from Vice President Joe.  None of the current NRA leadership would agree to be interviewed but they really had nothing to fear since the film covers the rise and current stance of Wayne LaPierre and his team in a balanced and honest way.

heston                The program follows the transformation of the NRA from an organization devoted to hunting and sport shooting to one focused primarily on beating back gun control efforts in Washington, D.C.  This changed with the emergence of Wayne LaPierre and a coterie of hard-core, conservative board members who then found themselves on the losing end of legislative battles in 1993-94 (Brady bill and assault weapons ban) but would never again wind up on the short end.  Gunned Down does not really explain how this shift in direction and message suddenly became (and still remains) so successful, given that the geography (Southern) and demographics (blue-collar White males) of the membership has not substantially changed.

One of the key moments in the NRA’s rise to lobbying power, according to Gunned Down, was the NRA’s allegedly decisive role in the 2000 electoral victory of George W. Bush.  The narrative is based primarily on post-election statements by Clinton who said that Gore lost because of NRA voters in Ohio, Arkansas and Gore’s home state of Tennessee.  But Tennessee, like most of the South, was gradually shifting blue to red well before the 2000 election, with Clinton-Gore receiving a smaller percentage of the total vote in 1996 than in 1992.  What probably swung Ohio into the 2000 Bush column was the increased activity of Evangelicals, who would then play a decisive role in Bush’s re-election in 2004.  Given the fact that two-thirds of the NRA membership live in Southern and border states, it shouldn’t surprise that NRA-backed candidates are strong south of the Mason-Dixon line.  On the other hand, the NRA mounted a big push last year to toss out Connecticut’s incumbent Governor, Dannel Malloy, but the fact that Malloy rammed through a major rewrite of the state’s gun law after Sandy Hook didn’t hurt him one bit.

Given its time-frame, the PBS documentary does not cover a tectonic shift in the gun-control landscape that has occurred over the past 18 months. I am referring to energetic and sustained grass-roots efforts by groups like Everytown and Colorado Ceasefire, the latter playing a formative role in the expansion of Colorado background checks in 2013.  Everytown now claims more than 2.5 million supporters, not bad for an organization that started operating the day after Sandy Hook.  The NRA makes headlines when the focus is on Washington, D.C., but they have never garnered the kind of media attention that Shannon Watts and her group received when they got Target to ask its customers not to bring guns into their stores.

It won’t be easy for the gun lobby to paint this production as just another example of how the liberal media scorns the value of guns. But the media may soon realize that what was once a good story may now need a different end.


Why Do Americans Favor Background Checks And Oppose More Gun Control?

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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.
brady2               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.



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