Guns and politics, together again

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Today, the Independence Institute's Kopel and The Economist's Lockwood address the politics of gun control. Yesterday, they debated the lessons of Virginia Tech. Later this week, they'll talk about the international view, treasured myths and possible solutions.

A Third-Wave gun lobby By Dave Kopel
The immediate reason for the decline of gun control as a political issue is the political power of the National Rifle Association, the world's oldest and largest civil liberties organization. Since 1980, the Republican nominee for President has won the general election whenever, and only if, he is endorsed by the NRA.

In December 1994, President Clinton told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, "The NRA is the reason the Republicans control the House." For every 10,000 NRA members in a House district, NRA support can augment a candidate's vote percentage by as much as 5 percent. If not for the NRA's influence in several swing states, Al Gore and John Kerry would have become President.

While Republican fortunes declined in 2006, the balance of power in Congress is held by a new class of strongly pro-gun Democrats, including Sens. Jim Webb of Virginia and John Tester of Montana. In the South and West, pro-gun Democratic governors abound.

The rollback of American gun control began in the 1980s with state preemption laws to forbid or limit local anti-gun laws. Almost all states have such a laws, the most recent being Ohio, which in 2006 wiped out over 80 local gun control ordinances. Beginning with Florida in 1987, more and more states have enacted laws for licensed handgun carry, which is now the law or practice in 40 states.

The NRA has been aided by the overreaching of gun control advocates. Preemption was initially spurred by the handgun bans in the Chicago suburbs of Morton Grove and Oak Park. Abusive lawsuits by big-city mayors, attempting to use the courts to create repressive laws which had been repeatedly rejected by legislatures, awoke the firearms industry from its slumber, and helped make the industry's trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, into a political force in its own right. One result has been bans on abusive lawsuits, enacted by 34 states and by Congress.

But groups like the NRA and NSSF have political clout only because their agenda resonates so closely with historic and contemporary American culture: the belief in the duty to take care of one's family, rather than being dependent on the state; the respect for hunting as a common right rather than an aristocratic privilege; and, most of all, the Declaration of Independence principle that sovereignty belongs to the people, and is only delegated to the government.

As communications technology has evolved in the last 20 years, pro-Second Amendment activists have almost always been early adopters. The type of people who can disassemble and clean a gun are often the type of people who eagerly learn how to use a new tool. From faxes to podcasts, new communications technologies have increasingly allowed pro-rights activists and groups to end-run the traditional media, most of which remains wedded to the statist, European suspicion of an armed populace.

Finally, there is practical experience. In none of the 40 states with licensed carry have the hysterical predictions of the anti-self-defense lobby come true. Since 1973, the number of guns in America has doubled, while the number of gun accidents has plunged from 2,618 to 730, and the homicide rate has fallen by over a third, from 9.5 per 100,000 population to 5.9.

Dave Kopel is research director of the Independence Institutein Golden, Colorado, and the co-author of the law school textbook Gun Control and Gun Rights (NYU Press).


Watch the statistics: gun control is coming backBy Christopher Lockwood
I agree with your analysis: the NRA is driving firearms policy in America. Where we differ is that I think this is a problem, whereas you don't. The majority of Americans, as demonstrated by poll after poll over many decades (Gallup has done the most polling on this) have consistently wanted to see tighter gun control. They got it in the 1990s, despite the best efforts of the NRA. In the 2000s, they have had the opposite.

What's changed? First, most obviously, there has been a pro-NRA Republican in the White House (the NRA once boasted that they would be working out of the White House after the 2000 election). On President Bush's watch, the ban on assault weapons has been allowed to expire, and a bill to prevent gun-makers from being liable for deaths caused by their products has been passed. Most damaging of all, according to gun control campaigners and police agencies, it has become much harder since 2003 to get any kind of information about illegal gun transfers, even when it is available. A high proportion of homicides are caused by illegal guns, but toughening up on enforcement is much harder without good information. Thanks to the NRA, the climate has been unfavorable to any attempt to tighten up the rules.

The NRA's political power has been further boosted by the essentially 50-50 nature of American politics in this period. Small House majorities, an extremely tight Senate and a presidency determined by a relatively small number of voters in a few swing states has maximized the power of well-financed lobby groups—and they don't come any bigger or better financed than the NRA. Were the Democrats to win thumping majorities in 2008, this disproportionate influence would decline. The NRA may have over 4 million members, but a majority of the 300 million Americans disagree with its views. The NRA's last redoubt will be the Senate: Broadly speaking, city-dwellers want gun control, and rural dwellers don't. But since there are two senators for every state, regardless of population, the rural dwellers are strongly over-represented in Congress.

There is, however, another factor to watch out for. In the early 1990s, the political climate was quite receptive to gun control, because gun crime had soared during the late 1970s and 1980s—a consequence of the drug wars of that time. In the 1990s, thanks to better, and better-funded, policing and (in some degree) to the Clinton administration's steps in the direction of gun control, homicides fell sharply. As the homicide numbers came down, so too did the proportions of people wanting more gun control.

But gun crime has now started to rise again. The 2005 figures showed a sharp rise over the 2004 ones, and although we don't yet have the full 2006 figures, urban police chiefs and the FBI are warning of a further enormous spike in the numbers in medium and big cities (population over 500,000). John Timoney, the police chief in Miami told The Economist that he thinks this spike is attributable to the ending of the assault weapons ban. The LAPD's own chief, William Bratton, runs a group of police chiefs that have warned of a "gathering storm" as more powerful weapons become more freely available. If this trend continues as predicted, I would not be surprised to see public demands for action increase again. Gun control could come back on the agenda sooner than you might think. And although the Democrats say they think guns lost them the elections of 1994 and 2000, it's not entirely true. There were a lot more reasons than gun control at play in 1994 (Hilary Clinton's medical failures, gays in the military etc), and Al Gore had weaknesses of his own.

—Chris

Christopher Lockwood is U.S. Editor of The Economist.

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