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…

Campaigning in Spanish: se habla español, pero conoce el votante latino?

This morning I saw a great BBC video on the use of Spanish in US Presidential campaigning, and whether it’s genuine outreach to Latino voters, or just lip service. The use of Spanish language material in campaigns is nothing new–I remember George W. Bush’s slow, heavily accented attempts (though his English wasn’t always very fluent either), Tim Kaine‘s more confident delivery of Trump takedowns en español, and even Jackie Kennedy spoke Spanish in an advert for JFK’s campaign in 1960.

While it seems like a lovely gesture, is it an empty one? As the BBC video points out, candidates attempts at speaking Spanish do not necessarily mean anything in terms of policy or genuine outreach. It may also be a bit annoying to bilingual Latinos and Latinos who are only fluent in English (like the only Latino candidate, Julián Castro, who is not actually fluent in Spanish).

What can candidates do to reach out to Latino voters, besides putting their English-language website into Google Translate (as the video suggests two of the current candidates did)? Here are 5 suggestions:

  1. Address the Latina pay gap: In the US, Latina women earn 53 cents for every dollar a white man earns.
  2. Make higher education more accessible and affordable: the college enrollment rate for Hispanic students has risen in recent years, but they are still less likely than other demographics to enroll in four-year and selective institutions.
  3. Healthcare: Like most Americans, Latinos want a better healthcare system. “In 2014, 26.5% of Hispanics were uninsured as compared to 10.4% of non-Hispanics under age 65. The gap was higher for persons aged 65 and over: 4.4% among Hispanics, compared with 0.5% among [non-Hispanic Whites].” (Velasco-Mondragon et al., 2016)
  4. Combat pollution and climate change: A recent study found inequality in air pollution generation/consumption in the U.S. “[A]ir pollution is disproportionately caused by white Americans’ consumption of goods and services, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic Americans.” (NPR story, original study here: Tessum et al., 2019)
  5. Gun control: In the current era of frequent mass shootings in the U.S., Latino voters generally support gun control legislation. “Hispanic registered voters nationally say they prefer gun control over the rights of owners by a margin of 62%-to-36%, as do black registered voters by a margin of 71%-to-26%, according to the survey. By contrast, white registered voters choose gun owners’ rights over gun control by a margin of 59%-to-39%.” (Pew survey)

The important thing for candidates to remember is to actually listen (don’t just assume you know what issues matter to them) and to not take voting blocs for granted (remember to go to Wisconsin and Michigan this time).  ¡Sí se puede!

Explaining the Inexplicable

This week I’ve been going back to my survey of American study abroad participants, in which I asked about their experiences of talking about US politics overseas during and after the 2016 election. By far the most frequently asked question they faced was simply “What happened?” They wanted to know why the election had the outcome it did, why Trump won, why Clinton lost, and whether Americans were actually in agreement with Trump’s platform.

It’s been almost two years since the election, and we still don’t really have all of the answers. Hillary Clinton even used that question as a title for her book, which she’s now promoting again for its paperback release.

There are a lot of contributing factors–the electoral college, for starters. Americans might be asked to explain the electoral college to people they meet overseas, often without fully understanding it themselves. There have only been a few elections in which the winner of the popular vote lost the electoral college, but two of them have now happened in our lifetime, and both were to the detriment of the Democratic party (2000 & 2016). That’s going to raise some eyebrows when we try to explain it overseas.

Another factor is the problem of “fake news”–not Trump’s definition of “fake news”, i.e. every form of journalism but Fox News–but actual misinformation disguised as news and circulated on social media by readers who may or may not be aware of its true nature. Trump’s overuse of the term has turned it into a joke, but the spread of fake news stories that smeared Hillary Clinton may have had real consequences, particularly in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Ilkley Brewery’s real ale with the slogan “Making Beer Great Again!” and Topshop jeans

There’s also the matter of Russian influence that we still don’t really know the full details of–but a few things are certain: 1) Russia did definitely meddle in the election, 2) they wanted Trump to win, and 3) Trump really doesn’t believe they did.

There are a range of other contributing factors, too: the Democratic party’s in-fighting and prolonged primary with Bernie Sanders, the “baggage” of Bill Clinton’s scandals, James Comey’s investigation announcement that came far too close to the election (and although it turned up nothing, the damage was done), Hillary Clinton’s so-called “likability” problem which is probably just sexism against the first female Presidential candidate, etc.

I’m still going through the survey data, but so far I’m just struck with the enormity of what we Americans abroad are asked to do, when we’re asked to explain the 2016 election. There’s really no explaining it, not then and not even two years on from it.