What I’m Reading: Disarmed

Kristin A. Goss, Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006

When I was in high school, my friend Rachael took me along to see Bowling for Columbine (2002) at a little independent movie theater in Mount Vernon, Washington. I wasn’t particularly aware of the gun control vs. gun rights debate before watching that movie, but that movie made me realize that America’s gun culture wasn’t normal. Like Michael Moore’s 2007 film Sicko about the healthcare debate, this movie used a comparative approach to show that ‘the way things are’ in America isn’t the way they are in other countries.

The recent El Paso and Dayton mass shootings drove that point home again, powerfully–this doesn’t happen in other countries. It’s not normal. “American exceptionalism” is evidenced in the government’s impotent attitude toward gun violence.

Growing up in the States, I knew people who owned guns–deer hunters, people (white men, to be specific) who wanted them for “self-protection” (which I’ve never understood–protection from what? Why do I feel safe without a gun, even in sketchy areas, but a tall, athletic guy I knew needed a gun to feel as safe as I do?). When I lived in the States, I didn’t think to question the Second Amendment and I took gun rights for granted.

Now, after a decade living in the UK, a country that banned handguns after the Dunblane, Scotland school shooting in 1986, my views on gun control no longer have a place in American politics. Even the most progressive Democrats believe in upholding the Second Amendment. Their current proposals are “the boldest language used in 20-25 years”, but they’re still not banning assault weapons, much less handguns.

Much of the academic literature on America’s gun debate centres on explaining why the NRA/gun lobby is so powerful and well-organised. Goss turns that question around to ask why the gun control advocates are so weak and ineffective. Where is the “missing movement for gun control”, as she calls it? Part of the answer lies in the American policy-making system, which makes national change difficult without large-scale mobilisation–and the necessary degree of mobilisation just hasn’t been seen on the gun control side, to overpower (or even compete against) the gun rights side.

Her book is part of my literature review for the study I’m doing on gun debate discourse post-Parkland, so I’m interested in this idea of mobilisation. The March for Our Lives on 24 March 2018 was, arguably, the kind of grassroots mobilisation that gun control advocates needed in order to get gun policy reform passed. But did it? What has changed since Parkland, in terms of actual policy?

As part of my study, I’ve been coding Congressional Twitter over the month after the Parkland shooting, so I’m familiar with all of the policy proposals that were circulating in those early days and weeks. They were, unsurprisingly, polarized. On the right, it was mostly arming teachers and increasing school security, while on the left it was a range of proposals–Fix NICS (improving the background check system), universal background checks, banning assault weapons, gun violence restraining orders, etc. The STOP School Violence Act passed with bipartisan support, but its proposals were a first step rather than comprehensive reform, and it had nothing to do with gun control. For several Republican members of Congress, their only mentions of Parkland or the gun debate were a “thoughts & prayers” tweet on 14 February, then a tweet about their support of the STOP act when it passed on 14 March. After seeing that pattern, over and over (and some “NRA A-grade” congresspeople didn’t mention it at all), I’m a bit cynical about policy change, and about the state of the gun debate in general.

Goss, however, is impressed by the March for our Lives movement and the current state of mobilization on the gun control side.

“The movement is much broader and better resourced and more pragmatic and strategic than it has been in the 20 years I’ve been studying it,” Goss said.

” One year later, experts say Parkland was ‘turning point’ in gun debate”, 14 February 2019

The same article pointed out a range of new laws and regulations at the state level, in 26 states and D.C.:

  • Seven states enacted extensions or improvements of background checks
  • Nine states and D.C. enacted laws banning the use of bump stocks and trigger activators
  • Five states tightened concealed carry laws
  • Eleven states passed laws to help keep firearms away from domestic abusers
  • Eight states and D.C. passed extreme risk protection order statutes
  • Four states passed new restrictions on firearm purchases by those under 21
  • Nine states passed laws to fund urban gun violence reduction programs

The list gave me some hope. 26 states is a majority, even though it’s a very slim one. I suspect those lefty, urbanised states include quite a lot more than 50% of the US population (I think a lot of people forget how massive California’s population is–one in eight Americans lives in California!). I think Goss’s observation about sustained mobilisation still rings true today, though–gun control advocates need to be as organised, high-profile and noisy as the gun rights side are with the NRA. They have a lot more money and influence of course, but as Goss points out, large-scale grassroots movements have changed things before–the Civil Rights movement, women’s rights, etc. The challenge is going to be translating popular support into mass mobilization. In a poll from last week, 90% of Americans support universal background checks for all gun purchases and nearly 70% support an assault-style weapons ban. It’s amazing to hear about that kind of consensus in our divided “red vs. blue” politics. The American people actually agree on some of the major proposals. Now they just need to care about advocating for them as much as the NRA cares about expanding gun rights…

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