Our Deep Divide Over Guns

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 13 2015 @ 10:25am

A couple weeks ago, Adam Gopnik claimed that “the majority of Americans agree that there should be limits and controls on the manufacture and sale and ownership of weapons intended only to kill en masse.” Lisa Miller disagrees:

Americans are perhaps more divided on the issue of guns than they’ve ever been. In 2014, just 47 percent — less than half — of Americans said that gun laws should be “more strict,” according to Gallup, down from 58 percent after the Newtown shootings and 78 percent in 1990, the year James Pough killed ten people, most of them at a General Motors office, with a semi-automatic rifle.

Forty-two percent of Americans have a gun in their home, a percentage that has fluctuated by about 10 percentage points over the past generation but is not so far from the proportion that owned guns in 1960: 49 percent. Yes, according to a year-old Rasmussen poll, 59 percent of Americans favor a ban on semi-automatic weapons, like the one Adam Lanza used in Sandy Hook. At the same time, 70 percent of people say they’d feel safer living in a neighborhood where owning a gun was allowed. “The majority is there,” writes Gopnik, but nearly every shred of evidence points the other way: Despite what would seem to be its obvious benefits, a majority on gun control has thus far been impossible to muster, even in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting. …

To frame the gun debate, as Gopnik does, as sane versus insane, with gun-control advocates, such as himself, as those “who actually want to reduce the number of gun massacres” and pro-gun forces as both (his language) dishonest and unscrupulous “prefer[ring] an attachment to lethal symbols of power” is to misunderstand the issue — or to miscast it to support his fictional notion of a consensus of right-thinking people like himself.

And nowhere are the murky, volatile, and heartbreaking conflicts within the gun debate laid bare more than in Newtown. I spent a good deal of time there in 2013, reporting a story about the aftereffects of the shooting, and was surprised to find so much sensitivity — and so much disagreement — around the subject of guns. There was no consensus. The town priest, ostensibly a strong moral voice in town, shied from articulating a principled allegiance to one side or the other. Even in a place where 20 children had died at the hands of a madman with a gun, the most basic questions of how to prevent a reoccurrence hit the rawest of nerves. No one wanted to say where they stood for fear of offending a neighbor who might feel another way. On the question of assault rifles, “I don’t want to demonize anyone,” said a parent whose child was in the school that day and lived. He had become an activist for stronger gun laws, but he lives in town, and his pro-gun friends were as devastated by the events of December 14, 2012 as he was.

Update from a reader:

The Beltway consensus seems to be that meaningful gun control is no longer possible in the U.S. But there is lots of room for change that can protect lives. Here in WA state, we passed Initiative 594 in Nov., that closes the gun show and online sales loophole. We had hundreds of passionate volunteers working on this initiative, and backing by deep pockets both here and outside the state, people like Bill Gates and Nick Hanauer. Now we are mobilized to pursue additional legislation to keep guns away from the mentally ill, hold parents responsible when their underage kids use guns in crimes, and inform people when confiscated guns are returned to those they had filed restraining orders against. There is pride that we beat the NRA at their own game, and this is now a state-by-state battle.