To the exasperation of its opponents, the National Rifle Assn. has expanded its influence in recent years and pushed an increasingly radical agenda. States have expanded open-carry laws, thanks to NRA pressure, as well as the number of public places where people can carry guns — such as university campuses. Since 2004, 10 states have enacted so-called campus carry measures, with Kansas set to do so next year. The NRA has also pushed 23 states to pass stand your ground statutes in the past decade; these expansive self-defense laws effectively allow gun owners to escalate confrontations and turn them into deadly affairs. More recently, the NRA has pushed permitless carry, which, as the term suggests, allows people to carry firearms in public with no permit — and no safety training.
Nevertheless, this radical gun rights agenda sits on an increasingly shaky house of cards thanks to demographic change.
Half the guns in the U.S. are owned by 3% of adults. So says a revelatory new study on the demographics of gun ownership by Harvard Public Health researchers. These “superowners,” as some have dubbed them, own on average 17 guns apiece. The study also points out that the share of Americans who own a gun has fallen from 25% to 22% in the last 20 years, even as the population as a whole has grown and gun sales have boomed. Clearly a lot of the same people keep buying guns.
Gun ownership in the U.S. is highly concentrated, and the trend promises to continue. The most recent General Social Survey, released in 2015, revealed that gun ownership among young adults has fallen to 14% from 23% in 1980. This is a considerable drop among what should be the NRA’s future membership.
Given these trends, it should come as no surprise that public opinion also stands against the NRA.
Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, polls indicated that more than 70% of Americans favored universal background checks for gun transactions. And a 2015 Johns Hopkins study found that majorities favor a host of stronger gun safety measures, including allowing lawsuits against negligent dealers, enacting safe storage laws and preventing sales to individuals with domestic violence restraining orders. While Missouri lawmakers recently approved a permitless carry law in their state, a majority of residents oppose the measure.
The NRA has traditionally succeeded in overcoming the popular will because it knows how to pressure (or threaten) lawmakers into its corner. Even after Sandy Hook, for instance, the NRA rallied enough members of Congress to block background checks. And the gun lobby obviously did well in this last election — though it spent a record amount — getting the president it wanted, as well as several new lawmakers to manipulate.
NRA opponents, however, have discovered a powerful line of attack that promises to make the legislative landscape better reflect the state of gun ownership and gun rights support. Instead of appealing to lawmakers, who are corrupted and corruptible, they’re going directly to the people.
Gun safety advocates sponsored ballot initiatives in four states, and won three, barely losing the fourth. Nevada passed universal background checks, California banned possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines and Washington state allowed judges to “issue orders enabling authorities to temporarily seize guns from people who are deemed a threat to themselves or others.” Maine voters narrowly declined to approve universal background checks.
The gun safety movement has suffered so many gut-wrenching setbacks in recent years, it was high time for a new approach. And, evidently, it’s working. When voters are asked directly about gun safety measures, they will check the box.
It was not long ago that the gun lobby enjoyed support from both sides of the political aisle. No more. Now the NRA is a fixture of the right — and increasingly, the right wing of the right — as it insists on an uncompromising agenda that alienates more and more Americans. In short, the gun lobby is marginalizing itself.
While the NRA was victorious with this last election, it is busy writing its own political obituary. Soon enough, the influence and power of the gun rights movement will match the dwindling share of gun owners.
Firmin DeBrabander is the author of “Do Guns Make Us Free? Democracy and the Armed Society.”
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