Encouraging signs of life in the movement for sane gun laws

Encouraging signs of life in the movement for sane gun laws

gun-sculptureThe gun lobby still rules, but its decline is increasingly easy to envision

For the millions of Americans who spend their days online or monitoring their smart devices, the arrival of news alerts regarding “active shooters” or “multiple victims reported shot” have become so commonplace in recent years that they sometimes produce scarcely a raised eyebrow. That is unless, of course, the alert recipient has some reason to feel a connection to the venue of the shooting or the people impacted.

As someone who spent his college years at the University of California, Los Angeles, and who knows people on campus in the present day, I had one of those moments last week when the familiar alerts started scrolling across my screen. Within minutes, an exchange of texts with my college roommate of many decades ago ensued.

Roomie: Ugh, shooting incident at our alma mater.

Me: Yeah watching now.

Roomie: Is it still active?

Me: Looks like it. [A friend’s son] is in grad school there. Apparently, the shooting’s in Boelter Hall, which I barely remember.

Roomie: Yeah, saw that and couldn’t remember if that was the name then. I remember the engineering school. Name is coming back to me now.

Me: [Expletive] guns.

Roomie: [Mutual college friend’s son] works at the Wooden Center.

Me: [Grim faced emoji]”

An hour or so later, after police discovered the shooter had apparently turned the gun on himself after murdering a single professor and that the world would be spared from the spectacle of yet another “mass” shooting – at least for a few more days – this follow-up exchange took place:

Roomie: Looks like it’s all clear.

Me: Good grief. Our crazy gun culture is so far gone that a ‘murder-suicide’ is now a run-of-the-mill event that provokes feelings of relief.

Roomie: Yes, it’s sad.”

A hopeless situation?

In a world awash in such exchanges (and there are undoubtedly thousands like it almost every single day in the United States), it would be easy to throw up one’s hands in despair and to dismiss the prospects for ending our nation’s toxic addiction to gun violence as a lost cause. With gun sales at or near record levels, the gun lobby seemingly in almost complete control of Congress, political tensions running high and some on the far right spreading insane rumors and urban myths and talking openly of “nullifying” federal laws, the nation feels in some ways like one in which gun violence might be ready to accelerate.

And yet…yet, other powerful signs point in a much different direction. Yes, the National Rifle Association and the predatory gun manufacturers who do so much to prop it up are in positions of unprecedented power. And yes, the mass shootings are occurring, literally, on an almost daily basis.

But consider also the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans are decidedly unhappy about this state of affairs. Poll after poll shows that people do not want to live this way. They want to feel safe from the threat of violence and they crave the genuine, practical and everyday kind of freedom for themselves and their children that comes with such security. And they do not believe that arming themselves to the hilt or transforming our cities and towns into modern versions of 19th Century Dodge City is the answer.

And while most people do not expect or even want to live in a society utterly free of guns in the foreseeable future, they are increasingly and overwhelmingly in support of smarter laws, policies and practices that would lower the threat from guns, keep them in the hands of sane people, reduce the number of gun suicides and accidental shootings and make mass killings much, much harder to commit.

Indeed, 87% of North Carolinians, 83% of gun owners, and 72% of NRA members support background checks for all gun sales. These numbers show that Americans are unified on gun safety to an extent unseen on almost any other issue.

Translating opinion into action

Unfortunately, the problem with the gun debate in recent years is that while one side has overwhelming public opinion on its side, the other has had the much larger supply of money and passion. For those who favor allowing guns essentially everywhere, guns are often the issue – the thing that motivates them to political action above all other matters. This is true in spades for the gun manufacturers who are quick to perceive even the slightest hint of a legal restriction on guns as an existential threat.

As with other single issue voters in American history, making guns their overriding issue has allowed a comparatively small segment of the population to enjoy a status and level of influence that far exceeds their actual numbers. Through absolutist demands and tactics not dissimilar from those of a schoolyard bully, gun true believers have dominated the debate. How else could a viewpoint that represents the opinion of less than one-in-five voters hold such sway?

The problem for the “guns everywhere” faction, however, is that such an act is hard to sustain in perpetuity. At some point, the silent majority gets tired of enduring abuse and starts to get itself organized and put the bully in its place.

One gets the distinct impression that this is starting to happen in the U.S. right now as a growing array of increasingly well-funded anti-gun violence advocacy groups, complete with professional staffs and thousands of serious volunteers, have started to come into their own.

Here in North Carolina last year, the gun safety advocates helped beat back yet another effort to expand unfettered gun ownership by, among other things, repealing the state’s pistol permit system. This year, the “guns everywhere” crowd hasn’t tried again. There are similar success stories around the country.

In recent days, the increasingly impressive and successful gun safety movement has stepped out into the spotlight still further to stake its claim.

Last week, advocates all over the country rallied under orange gun safety banners to celebrate National Gun Violence Awareness Day. At the General Assembly in Raleigh, numerous Senators and Representatives stood proudly in front of TV cameras to lend their name to the effort.

NCPW-CC-2016-06-06-charleston-comp-400x270And yesterday, at an N.C. Policy Watch Crucial Conversation luncheon, 60-plus activists and advocates took time from their busy Mondays to hear State Senator Floyd McKissick, Jr. and a pair of prominent religious leaders – Rev. Kylon Middleton of Charleston, South Carolina, a close friend of the nine individuals murdered in his city last June, and Rev. Jennifer Copeland, head of the North Carolina Council of Churches – explain why the tide in the debate over guns has started to turn.

Each of the three speakers delivered the same simple message voiced with great clarity and effectiveness by groups like North Carolinians Against Gun Violence and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in recent years: The movement for gun safety is not about doing away with guns or keeping law abiding citizens from having guns; it’s about ending the bloodshed in our society. Just as the nation greatly reduced the carnage on our highways over the last several decades through better safety rules for vehicles, safer roads, better driver training and testing and tougher drunk driving laws, it’s now clear that we have a similar capacity to make guns and gun ownership dramatically safer.

It is, in short, a message that is about some simple, common sense all-American truths that are as un-“radical” as a driver’s license. As Senator McKissick noted in his speech, when a North Carolina 18 year old can’t buy a beer, but can walk into a gun show or even a Wal-Mart and buy a gun with which he can turn around and commit murder, something is just plain wrong.

The bet here is that this simple message is starting to resonate with more and more average people who are weary of their government being held hostage by the gun lobby.

Stay tuned and stay engaged.

Note: Click here to learn more about and support “Stand up Sabbath” a special N.C. Council of Churches initiative scheduled for the weekend of June 17-18 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Charleston church shootings.