On Dec. 14, gun control advocates will mark the one-year anniversary of the Newtown elementary school massacre by gathering at events in 35 states and ringing bells. “Moms won’t be silent anymore,” says Shannon Watts. In response to Newtown, Watts started Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a grassroots organization that has become the most visible new player in the gun debate. “Something changed after Sandy Hook,” she says of the grade school where 20 children and six adults were killed in a matter of minutes by a troubled young man armed with a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle. “We can’t unring that bell, and we will be heard. This is not the America I want for my children.”
For all her heartfelt emotion, the fight over firearms hasn’t gone well for Watts and her allies. In a humbling political defeat for President Obama, congressional Republicans last spring blocked attempts to enact new federal gun restrictions. Lawmakers had some success in a handful of states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, and New York toughened background-check rules and/or banned certain large-capacity weapons. In Colorado, where 12 people were killed in a mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater in 2012, the legislature instituted comprehensive background checks and limited ammunition capacity to 15 rounds per magazine.
Then came the push-back: Colorado voters so far have forced three pro-gun control state legislators from office—two in a recall backed by the National Rifle Association and a third who resigned in the face of opposition. At least 16 states—Alabama, Kansas, Maine, Oklahoma, and Virginia among them—reacted to Newtown by loosening gun restrictions in the past year. Several of the pro-gun states, including Arizona, where a 2011 shooting at a shopping mall left six people dead and then-Representative Gabrielle Giffords grievously wounded, enacted laws that exempt gun permits from public records. Viewing the nation as a whole and factoring in the expiration of the 1994-2004 federal assault weapons ban, it has become easier to acquire firearms in the U.S. in recent years.
And acquire them we have. FBI background-check data, an imprecise but revealing proxy for gun purchases, show that in 2005 fewer than 9 million checks were done. For the first 11 months of 2013, that figure rose to more than 19 million. Not every background check leads to a firearm sale, but the direction of the statistics is compellingly clear. For gun manufacturers, the trend shows up in growing revenue. Sturm Ruger, the largest publicly traded U.S. firearms maker, reported $506.4 million in sales for the first nine months of 2013, a 45 percent increase over the comparable period in 2011. Its profit rose 67 percent.
Why, even after Newtown, are gun rights on the ascendant? The starting place is violent crime rates. The push for national gun control began in earnest in the late 1960s, an era of sharply rising murder and assault rates, especially in large cities. Violence increased markedly for three decades, through 1993, providing gun skeptics with a plausible basis to argue that limiting access to firearms might help address the scourge. In December 1993, 70 percent of Americans supported stricter gun control, according to pollsters at CNN. Then, beginning in 1994, for reasons that still perplex criminologists, violent crime began to decrease, falling roughly 50 percent over the past two decades. In CNN’s most recent poll, published on Dec. 4, 49 percent of respondents supported stricter gun control, down six percentage points since January.
Today, guns are used in 63 percent of violent crimes in the U.S. and 69 percent of murders. The number of U.S. murders and the subset of those killings involving firearms are dropping, however. Murder has diminished 17 percent since 2003, although 2012 saw a 0.4 percent uptick compared with 2011. In a country that broadly speaking is getting safer, it’s more difficult to get politicians in Washington to risk the wrath of the NRA and support anything described as “gun control.”
Apart from politics, dispassionate observers must question the simplistic liberal slogan that more guns equals more crime. The U.S. has seen a two-decade period during which private gun ownership has continued to soar (some 300 million firearms are now in civilian hands), while crime has diminished.
Newtown, and Aurora before it, were not ordinary instances of violent crime. Mass shootings by deranged young men present a special case, one painfully disconnected from the gun control proposals these atrocities inspire. Mass murderers prepare meticulously and usually acquire their weapons legally. Comprehensive background checks make sense for whatever good they might do at the margin, but they wouldn’t have stopped Newtown gunman Adam Lanza, who armed himself from his mother’s legal, if negligently maintained, home arsenal. Aaron Alexis, who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in September, used a legally acquired 12-gauge shotgun, a firearm widely carried by bird hunters and not on any plausible ban list.
One hard truth is that in a society with widespread gun ownership protected by the Second Amendment, suicidal young men determined to make a statement by slaying innocents will continue from time to time to attempt their bloody spectacles. The media don’t help by sensationalizing these crimes with 24/7 cable coverage that psychiatrists believe incites copycats. To make guns truly unavailable, one has to talk about broad prohibition and confiscation. That’s simply not on the table. Tinker with the rules on ammunition capacity and you might—might—slow a madman’s kill rate, but you won’t deter him in the first place. He’ll just bring more magazines.
Another hard truth: To stop future Lanzas, activists and policymakers need to focus on identifying dangerously mentally ill people and limiting their freedoms, including their access to guns. Reforming a broken mental health system, unfortunately, is a far more daunting challenge than holding an anti-gun rally.
Finally, the strategy adopted by well-meaning activists post-Newtown may undermine their cause. Consider Moms Demand Action, which is allied with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an organization started by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg Businessweek parent Bloomberg LP). Watts, the Moms leader, describes her campaign as “a war for the culture.” She talks about firearms as a symbol of an America she doesn’t “recognize.”
Watts is fighting on the NRA’s preferred battlefield. Gun rights organizers have become expert at framing any gun control proposal as an attack on their culture. In a Dec. 6 “grassroots alert” to members, the NRA sounded its usual theme that President Obama and gun control backers push an agenda seeking to “fundamentally transform America” and will “exploit any occasion, no matter how crassly, to promote it.”
Gun control advocates often appear not to appreciate that their country, for better or worse, has a widespread and deeply rooted gun subculture that isn’t going away. No lesser body than the Supreme Court, in decisions issued as recently as 2008 and 2010, has interpreted the Constitution as enshrining that reality.
Two parallel paths forward offer more hope for progress than indulging in a culture war: The nation needs to identify and replicate the policies that have contributed to the drop in ordinary violent crime. And it must confront the conundrum of dangerously unstable individuals who live in a society that celebrates firearm ownership as an emblem of individualism and self-reliance.