What Democrats should say about guns

What Democrats should say about guns
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The United States is gun country. About 40 percent of Americans live in a gun-owning household. The United States has 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but almost half — 42 percent — of civilian-owned guns. In the wake of the Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), and a massive public relations and lobbying campaign by the National Rifle Association, support for the Second Amendment right of Americans to bear arms has grown.

Although a substantial majority of Americans want to protect their right to own guns and rifles, many also support specific gun control proposals. About 60 percent are in favor of stricter gun laws; 94 percent advocate requiring background checks for all gun buyers; 63 percent support a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons; 52 percent would vote against a candidate for Congress who receives campaign contributions from the NRA and 58 percent against a candidate who wants to allow school teachers to carry guns; 59 percent disapprove of the way President TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — State Dept. employees targets of spyware Ohio Republican Party meeting ends abruptly over anti-DeWine protesters Jan. 6 panel faces new test as first witness pleads the Fifth MORE is handling the issue of gun violence.

These apparent contradictions provide an opportunity for Democrats to seize the initiative on guns, energize their base (city dwellers, suburban women, young people), while positioning themselves well in the general election.


Here’s what Democrats should say about guns:

1) The United States is the world capital of firearm homicides, suicides, and mass shootings. On average, there is a mass shooting every day in the United States. The United States has 29.7 homicides by firearm per every 1 million residents; Canada has 5.1, Germany 1.9, Australia 1.4. States in the United Sates with the most guns report the most suicides; countries (like Australia) which have reduced access to guns saw a dramatic decrease in the number of firearm suicides. Higher populations, more stress, more immigrants, and more mental illness, economist Richard Florida has found, do not correlate with more gun deaths. Easy access to firearms, which are deadlier than knives or poisons, is the only evidence-based explanation of the massive disparity between gun violence in the United States (which does not have more crime than other industrial nations) and every other country.

2) Like gun possession, gun regulation is as American as apple pie. Enacted throughout our history at every level of government, gun laws number in the thousands. As Robert J. Spitzer has demonstrated in “Guns Across America” — “they spanned every conceivable category of regulation, from gun acquisition, sale, possession, transport and use, including deprivation of use through outright confiscation, to hunting and recreational regulations, to registration and express gun bans.” A municipal ordinance in Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone banned the carrying of firearms without a special permit. In the 1920s and 1930s, 28 states passed anti-machine gun laws; seven states specifically restricted semi-automatic weapons.

3) In the not-too-distant past, gun control legislation has received bi-partisan support. In 1994, Ronald Reagan and two other former presidents sent a letter urging members of Congress to pass a bill barring many semi-automatic weapons. “This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety,” they said, and cited a poll in which 77 percent of respondents endorsed a ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of semi-automatic assault weapons, including the AK-47. The bill passed the House by a razor thin margin, with 38 Republicans, including Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-Ill.), voting yes. In 1967, following a Black Panther “invasion” of California’s state capitol in Sacramento, the NRA supported an “open carry” ban on loaded firearms. In the 1990s, the NRA backed a proposal to establish a national system of instant background checks to identify criminals seeking to purchase guns.

4) In Feb. 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation mandating background checks on all gun sales, including purchases made privately, online or at gun shows. Had it been the law of the land, the bill might have prevented a white supremacist — who had been arrested for possession of drugs — from buying a gun and killing nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellUS could default within weeks absent action on debt limit: analysis The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress avoids shutdown Senate dodges initial December crisis with last-minute deal MORE (R-Ky.) has refused to bring the bill for the floor of the U.S. Senate.

5) The Background Checks Act of 2019, Democrats should say, is yet another example of Republicans thwarting the will of the people, doing the bidding of a scandal-ridden NRA, and trotting out the preposterous argument that the bill will “make criminals out of law-abiding Americans.”

6) As they take credit for “doing the people’s business” on background checks and blast a do-nothing Senate, leaders of the House (who are not highly skilled at public relations) should conduct high-profile hearings on a ban on assault weapons and schedule a vote on a “common-sense” bill. Since the Parkland shooting, they should add, to help build momentum, gun control laws have been enacted in 20 states, and 150 of 196 candidates for state and federal offices endorsed by Everytown for Gun Safety won their races.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic:  Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.