Editorial Board

Only Good Guys With Data Can Stop the Gun Lobby

For the latest illustration of how thoroughly gun politics is entwined with gun culture, look no further than Colorado. In a proxy war last week between gun-rights and pro-regulation forces, two Democratic state legislators who backed successful gun legislation lost recall elections.

The recall won’t undo the Colorado law, which limits ammunition magazines to 15 rounds and mandates background checks on private gun purchases. Nor will it change the pro-regulation majority in the state legislature. Those points aside, the results confirm once again that -- even in a purple state trending blue -- the battle for sensible gun regulation will be a long one.

According to a poll of one of the Colorado districts, voters supported expanded background checks by 68 percent to 27 percent, while they split 47-to-47 on the restrictions on high-capacity magazines. Yet State Senator Angela Giron lost the recall vote by 12 points in a district that President Barack Obama carried easily last year. The defeat was reminiscent of the legislative loss in Washington five months ago, when the U.S. Senate failed to summon a filibuster-proof majority for expanded background checks on gun purchases despite overwhelming public support.

In Colorado, as in the nation at large, public opinion in support of gun regulation proved broad but insufficiently deep. In addition, many moderate voters had misgivings about gun regulation in general, even as they expressed support for elements of it. Cultural touchstones loom large in the gun debate, including conceptions of autonomy and liberty that are deeply fixed in many American communities. Finally, in low-turnout elections such as last week’s, intensity wins the day.

As long as gun-rights proponents remain a fiercely committed minority, and gun-regulation proponents a largely passive majority, the minority will remain competitive. (Disclosure: Mayors Against Illegal Guns, co-founded by New York Mayor and Bloomberg LP owner Michael Bloomberg, supports gun regulation and supported both candidates in the Colorado race.)

Resistance to regulation increasingly emanates from a culture that places guns at the center of an individualistic ideology, one reinforced by marketing language about securing “tactical” superiority over the “enemy.” (Hunting, interestingly, has become far less salient than self-defense; a threat by hunters to boycott Colorado for having enacted gun regulations never came to pass, and applications to hunt big game in the state increased by 18,000 from 2012 to 2013.)

There may be no arguments to sway the true believers, many of whom combine intense loyalty to a mythic American past with an unsettled fear of the American future. But the Colorado losses confirm that supporters of gun regulation have far to go in convincing many voters in the middle.

Previous public-safety campaigns, such as those on the necessity of seat belts or the dangers of tobacco, took decades to win. In both cases, victory depended on the collection of data and the dissemination of information that demonstrated, overwhelmingly, the public-health costs associated with two iconic American activities.

Gun reform advocates face a similarly long battle. But they lack a sufficient body of research on the relationship between guns and public safety. This makes it more difficult to articulate a compelling case.

The paucity of research is no accident. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government researchers have been thwarted by a heavy-handed legislative directive that prohibits funding to “advocate or promote gun control.” President Barack Obama has sought to mitigate the damage through executive action, but it’s Congress that controls the nation’s purse.

Research won’t resolve the rural versus urban or individualism versus communitarian conflicts that predate the republic. But it will put the old debates on newer, more solid ground. Given the deep animosity of the National Rifle Association to credible research, proponents of sensible gun regulation can distinguish themselves by pushing for more and better research on the health and safety effects of guns.

Let the research show what it will. And then fashion the arguments accordingly.