If you’re giddily telling yourself that the National Rifle Association’s stranglehold on gun reform is finally coming to an end, think again.
Yes, Wayne LaPierre and the gun rights group he leads appeared out of step and hard-hearted in the national dialogue that followed the mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day.
Yes, corporations have ditched discount programs and other association with the NRA. Dick’s Sporting Goods will cease selling assault-style weapons like the one used to murder 17 students and staff in Parkland. Even Walmart has bent to public outcry and raised the age limit for firearm sales to 21.
It all feels so positive. The groundswell of protest and response gives hope that this time we’ll finally see action that will make America safer from gun violence.
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But rest assured that LaPierre is not quaking. His organization has barely been nicked, and he understands the grip that guns have on America.
Guns are deeply embedded in the American psyche, tied to historic legacies both mythical and real. From our early childhoods on, guns are a staple of our media, entertainment and the games we play.
Our attitudes are not captured very accurately by gun ownership data. Many people who don’t own guns have positive feelings about them, even strongly held ones, based on their beliefs about individual rights. And gun affinities are also influenced by family and peer groups. You may not know how to shoot a gun, but you may also fondly recall stories of your great-grandfather’s mastery as a hunter.
In fact, “relationship” is a theme of a recent assessment of gun ownership and attitudes in America that we’d all do well to acquaint ourselves with. “America’s Complex Relationship with Guns: An In-Depth Look at the Attitudes and Experiences of U.S. Adults” was released by Pew Research Center last June. Here’s what it found:
“Americans have broad exposure to guns, whether they personally own one or not. At least two-thirds have lived in a household with a gun at some point in their lives. And roughly seven in 10 — including 55 percent of those who have never personally owned a gun — say they have fired a gun at some point. Today, three in 10 U.S. adults say they own a gun, and an additional 36 percent say that while they don’t own one now, they might be open to owning a gun in the future.”
There. In fewer than 100 words, you have read why the “gun debate” is often not a debate at all. Because well-meaning efforts to change how Americans buy, trade and possess their firearms often fail to take into account how firearms resonate to even non-gun owners.
The report goes on: “A third of adults say they don’t currently own a gun and can’t see themselves ever doing so.”
A third of the population is far from the majority. The pathway to a safer America — one that respects the Second Amendment but also respects society’s need to be safe from guns — will not be dictated by that one-third of Americans who cannot fathom owning a gun.
Any workable consensus on gun control must include at least some Americans who either own guns or who would consider doing so. And that describes a whole lot of America.
It’s also worth considering that two-thirds of gun owners cited protection as their No. 1 reason for owning a gun. That explains why many continue to believe that arming teachers — a notion that teachers widely oppose — is a rational response to school shootings.
We all want to protect schools, churches and other public spaces from attack. And if you see a gun as a primary way of doing that, then it’s not really a leap to want to arm more people, however flawed the idea is in other practical ways.
Attitudes about guns are deeply held, and it’s not clear how easily they are altered by awful acts of violence, regardless of how high the body counts are or how long they remain in the headlines. The murder of 14 students and three faculty of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has had a more profound impact on the national conscience than most school shootings, thank God.
If we are to find a way forward on gun violence in America, we have to understand and respect the realities both of the violence and of the attitudes and beliefs of our fellow citizens.