Threat, polarization, and mobilization in the gun debate

Until just a few weeks ago, the notion of a policy-relevant debate about access to guns seemed fanciful.  Supporters of relatively easy access to firearms of all sorts were resolute, and advocates of limits of any kind were either silent or marginal.

A crazed gunman’s massacre of children in a public school in Newtown, Connecticut, reshuffled this alignment–at least a little.  The event, and public concern about school shootings, gave potential control advocates, including the President of the United States, the incentive to work on the issue.  Their words, activism at the grassroots, and the prospects of policy change, have threatened gun rights activists enough to mobilize them as well.  Some ran to buy guns that might soon be harder to get; others are getting political.

The picture above is from a protest outside a gun show in Stamford, Connecticut, about 40 miles from Newtown.  It’s too soon, protesters said.  After all, gun shows represent one of the largest loopholes in contemporary gun laws; buyers can avoid the background checks that they would have to get in order to buy a gun from a store.  Some of the drivers-by honked in support; others ridiculed the demonstrators.  The company running the show canceled an event scheduled in Waterbury (twenty miles from Newtown) for the following weekend.  The demonstrators, organized by A Million Moms for Gun Control, Occupy the NRA, and others, was a way to draw attention to an event that otherwise passes unnoticed, and to politicize this particular kind of commerce.

Activists protesting a gun show in Utah the same weekend received a more forceful response.  Demonstrators who said they were seeking a conversation with their gun-buying neighbors mostly just got boos.

Polarizing the issue turns out to be good for activist groups.  The National Rifle Association reports 100,000 new members.  That means money, attention, and even more leverage.  Mayors against Illegal Guns, organized by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, claimed 400,000 new members.  That’s also money, attention, and maybe even leverage.

Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, shot by a(nother) crazed gunman at a shopping center, and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelley, announced a fund-raising campaign to counterbalance the NRA, Americans for Responsible Solutions.  Because Rep. Giffords was a gun owner and a gun rights advocate, and because she will bear the consequences of our current policies for the rest of her life, we’d think her participation will have special importance, and that she’d be particularly difficult to discredit or ignore.


But that’s what gun control advocates thought more than thirty years ago, when James Brady and his wife Sarah Brady began engaging in a campaign for gun control.  Brady, who

Jim Brady and Ronald Reagan

worked as Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, was shot and severely wounded by (yet) a(nother) crazed gunman who also shot the president in 1981.  Alas, there’s not much evidence that his political background or his life experience helped his argument with gun rights fundamentalists.

Mobilization on more than one side of an issue usually solidifies everyone’s positions and commitments.  It doesn’t usually bode well for policy reforms.  Particularly in the current political climate, when the House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans who mostly fear primary challengers more than Democratic opponents in a general election, passing new laws will be extremely difficult.  The American system, of course, is designed to make it hard to change anything.

It’s possible, of course, that reformers will seek to push the issue and punish their opponents at the polls–just as the NRA has effectively punished its opponents for years.  But they won’t be alone in doing so.  Will newly elected Democrats in the Senate, like Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) or Joe Manchin (West Virginia) be willing to define their own positions on what constitutes reasonable access to firearms, knowing that the NRA and its allies will construe any effort at regulation (universal background checks?  limits on magazine size?) as a severe moral and political defection?

Opponents of legal reforms need to stall.  Proponents of gun control will have to maintain their attention and mobilization over a long period of time.  It’s hard.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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