Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in Americaby Kristin A. Goss, Kristin A. A. Goss
More than any other advanced industrial democracy, the United States is besieged by firearms violence. Each year, some 30,000 people die by gunfire. Over the course of its history, the nation has witnessed the murders of beloved public figures; massacres in workplaces and schools; and epidemics of gun violence that terrorize neighborhoods and claim tens of
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More than any other advanced industrial democracy, the United States is besieged by firearms violence. Each year, some 30,000 people die by gunfire. Over the course of its history, the nation has witnessed the murders of beloved public figures; massacres in workplaces and schools; and epidemics of gun violence that terrorize neighborhoods and claim tens of thousands of lives. Commanding majorities of Americans voice support for stricter controls on firearms. Yet they have never mounted a true national movement for gun control. Why? Disarmed unravels this paradox.
Based on historical archives, interviews, and original survey evidence, Kristin Goss suggests that the gun control campaign has been stymied by a combination of factors, including the inability to secure patronage resources, the difficulties in articulating a message that would resonate with supporters, and strategic decisions made in the name of effective policy. The power of the so-called gun lobby has played an important role in hobbling the gun-control campaign, but that is not the entire story. Instead of pursuing a strategy of incremental change on the local and state levels, gun control advocates have sought national policies. Some 40% of state gun control laws predate the 1970s, and the gun lobby has systematically weakened even these longstanding restrictions.
A compelling and engagingly written look at one of America's most divisive political issues, Disarmed illuminates the organizational, historical, and policy-related factors that constrain mass mobilization, and brings into sharp relief the agonizing dilemmas faced by advocates of gun control and other issues in the United States.
"Rarely does a book make a significant contribution to two separate fields, but this work by Kristin Goss does. Readers interested in social movements and social movement theory will find an interesting case study of a movement that never happenedefforts to strengthen gun control laws in the United States. Those who study gun control will encounter a unique perspective on the interest group politics and policy making of firearms regulation. Well-researched and clearly written, the book is insightful and informative. Goss's journalistic background is evident, both in her prose and in the relative brevity of the book. Her arguments are clearly elucidated in a first chapter that should serve as a model."Harry L. Wilson, Political Science Quarterly
Harry L. Wilson
- Princeton University Press
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- Princeton Studies in American Politics: Historical, International, and Comparative Perspectives
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DisarmedThe Missing Movement for Gun Control in America
By Kristin A. Goss
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE GUN CONTROL (PARTICIPATION) PARADOX
ON APRIL 20, 1999, two alienated teenagers armed with an arsenal of semiautomatic firearms calmly made their way into their suburban Denver high school and began shooting indiscriminately. The young gunmen shot fellow students as they ate lunch on the school lawn, as they ran for cover in the school cafeteria, and as they crouched in terror in the school library. When the shooting spree at Columbine High School was over, one teacher and fourteen students (including the shooters) lay dead, and another twenty-one were wounded. With satellite trucks and cameras stationed outside the besieged school, coverage of the massacre was beamed live to television stations across the nation.
Columbine, the Colorado state flower and the massacre's ironic shorthand term, may have been the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, but it was not the first. Between 1997 and 2000, there were three dozen mass shootings in schools, workplaces, and other seemingly safe spaces across the United States. But Columbine seemed "different," as one gun control leader noted at the time. "The focus on gun control seems to be more immediate and more lasting."
OnApril 20 and in the weeks that followed, the nation indeed was galvanized to confront gun violence. Newspapers and talk radio featured impassioned testimonials about the historically tragic role of guns in America. Amid a popular outcry, pro-gun legislators' efforts to ease access to firearms stalled in state legislatures, including Colorado's. President Bill Clinton renewed calls for congressional passage of modest gun control measures, and previously reluctant lawmakers made tentative moves in that direction. Donations poured in to national gun control organizations, and their memberships grew. And thousands of people, including students from Columbine and other Denver-area high schools, gathered for an unprecedented protest against the nation's mighty champion of gun rights, the National Rifle Association (NRA), whose long-planned annual meeting was held in Denver two weeks after the Columbine shootings.
As it turned out, Columbine was different in some ways-but sadly routine in others. The aftermath of Columbine looked a lot like the aftermath of many other high-profile shootings in American history: collective outrage, followed by a momentary flurry of unorganized calls and letters and donations from thousands of individuals, and then a quick return to the status quo. In the months after Columbine, Americans witnessed four particularly traumatic shootings: a white supremacist's racially motivated killing spree in Illinois and Indiana in July 1999 that killed two people and wounded nine; an indebted day trader's massacre at his home and two Atlanta brokerage houses later that month (thirteen dead, including the shooter's wife and children, and twelve injured); a white supremacist's attack in August 1999 on a Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California (five injured), and on a Filipino postal worker (who died); and a six-year-old boy's fatal shooting of his classmate in February 2000 at an elementary school near Flint, Michigan. If ever the country had been primed to confront its gun violence problem, this was the time.
Within two years of Columbine and the traumatic shootings that followed, leading American newspapers decided to investigate the political fallout from these dramatic national events. What they found was not the stuff of banner headlines. Instead, headline after headline told a story of mass political quiescence. "New Gun Control Politics: A Whimper, Not a Bang," concluded the New York Times. "Hill Reaction Muted on Latest Shooting; Lawmakers Largely Silent on Gun Control," the Washington Post reported. "Rampages Elicit Little Outcry for Gun Control," sighed the San Francisco Chronicle. Even though Columbine had seemed different, like a watershed moment that would radically alter the history of gun politics in America, in fact very little had happened legislatively or electorally. The nation seemed to have returned to normal, with Columbine and the other shootings nothing but a terrible memory.
The headlines notwithstanding, Columbine and the other high-profile shootings that followed appear to have accomplished what countless other gun violence traumas failed to do. These shootings planted the seeds of a sustained, visible, grassroots, nation-spanning gun control effort. New leaders emerged, new tactics were pioneered, and new interest groups formed. Whether a full-fledged movement will arise remains to be seen; that question is best left to future scholars. But Columbine bequeathed the present generation of scholars an equally engaging question: If a gun control movement were to arise in America, why didn't it happen before Columbine? Where was this missing movement?
Columbine was a shock but not a surprise. The United States witnesses sensational shootings with numbing regularity. The nation also experiences an epidemic of gun violence about once a decade. In recent surveys, roughly one in three American adults reported that someone "close" to them "such as a friend or relative," had been shot. This means some 63 million American adults have been secondary victims of gun violence. More to the point, polls back to 1973 consistently have found that about 20% of Americans have been threatened by a gun or shot at. Thus, in any given year, between 25 million and 46 million people report having had a close call with a gun at some point in their life.
Perhaps not surprisingly, public opinion polls routinely show crime and violence to be at or near the top of Americans' list of problems facing the nation. Polls also show crime and violence to be one of the issues citizens most want the government to address. For the seventy years that scientific surveys have been conducted, Americans have strongly and consistently favored at least one approach to the violence problem: stricter government regulation of firearms. And yet, decades of poll findings notwithstanding, each high-profile shooting or violence epidemic produces little more than a brief flurry of citizen outrage-a burst of emotion followed by a return to political normalcy. To be sure, millions of Americans bemoan the loss of life and the breakdown of moral order that these events reflect, and a small fraction of those citizens go so far as to write letters of protest to their local newspaper or their Congress member. In Congress and in state legislatures, a few elected officials invariably use the opportunity to advance gun control legislation. But most political leaders lie low, assuming that the public agitation will prove fleeting, just as it has so many times before. And prove fleeting it inevitably does.
Studying the gun control issue in the early 1970s, Hazel Erskine observed: "It is difficult to imagine any other issue on which Congress has been less responsive to public sentiment for a longer period of time." That insight is at the heart of the well-known "gun control paradox": Most people want strict gun laws, but they don't get them-why? This book argues that there is a deeper puzzle: Most people want them, but they don't mobilize to get them-why? I refer to this as the "gun control participation paradox." This book seeks to explain that puzzle. To put the question in stark, if overly simplistic, terms, Why is there no real gun control movement in America?
The answer, as it turns out, is multifaceted and far reaching, encompassing an array of structural constraints, historical developments, and organizational choices. But if there is one overarching explanation it is this: Gun control advocates were not nearly as successful as their opponents were in using American federalism to advance their cause. Sometimes this was the result of choices made by gun control proponents; sometimes it was the result of roadblocks that their opponents placed in the way; and sometimes it was the result of factors that systematically favor certain types of groups over others. In the end, the gun control case illustrates a stubborn lesson: The framers of the Constitution rigged the U.S. political system to frustrate the ambitions of bold policy reformers and to reward those who build consent from the ground up. Their plan succeeds to this day.
This introductory chapter serves several purposes. It outlines the scope and nature of gun violence in America, presents the core research question, and justifies the question in quantitative terms. The chapter then couches the question in theoretical terms and dispenses with some of the "obvious" explanations. Finally, the chapter presents a summary of the argument that unfolds in the chapters to come.
AN AMERICAN GUN CULTURE?
Between 1992 and 2001, more than 336,000 Americans died by gunfire, and more than 5.4 million were threatened or injured by gun-wielding robbers or other assailants. More than one-third of the deaths occurred on the tail end of what the press and public health officials dubbed an "epidemic" of firearms violence, which lasted from 1988 through 1994. During that time, the annual gun fatality rate reached 15 deaths per 100,000 people-only a small fraction of the deaths from heart disease, but more than the rate of death from common afflictions such as leukemia, liver disease, or AIDS. Even in "nonepidemic" years, the firearms death rate in the United States is considerably higher than that in any other advanced industrial nation. For example, the rate at which Americans were killed by guns in 1997 (a relatively peaceful year in the United States) was thirty-four times the rate of gunshot deaths in the United Kingdom, and more than three times the rate in Norway or Australia.
On top of the hundreds of thousands of "everyday shootings" each year, the United States has regularly witnessed high-profile killings that have garnered significant public attention. One-third of the U.S. presidents since the Civil War (nine of twenty-seven) have been assassinated or threatened by assailants with guns, and many other high-profile Americans-politicians, civil rights leaders, entertainers-have been felled by bullets. In the late 1990s, even as the overall gun violence rate was declining, the United States witnessed a series of "rampage shootings" in schools, workplaces, and other "safe spaces." Between 1997 and 2001, at least thirty-six such incidents attracted widespread media coverage. Together, these episodes resulted in the death of 139 people, including more than 30 schoolchildren, and the wounding of at least 188 students and adults.
It is often argued that, relative to other advanced industrial nations, the United States has unrestrictive gun laws. For example, Canada passed a comprehensive scheme of gun registration after a man killed 14 women and wounded 13 others at a Montreal university in 1989. Australia outlawed semiautomatic and automatic assault weapons, and imposed strict registration and owner licensing for other firearms, after a man killed 35 and wounded 18 at a tourist spot in Tasmania in 1996. The United Kingdom banned private possession of handguns after a gunman killed 16 schoolchildren and a teacher in Dunblane, Scotland, also in 1996.
Guns are less tightly regulated and more easily purchased in the United States than in other Western nations. To be more specific, American firearms regulations are comparatively less restrictive in at least five senses. First, the laws have concentrated more on penalizing misuse than on controlling access; the laws are post hoc (punitive) more than ex ante (preventive). Second, broad availability has been taken for granted. Thus, regulations have focused on keeping guns from certain groups (minors, felons, addicts, the mentally ill) rather than restricting availability to a small class of potentially vulnerable individuals who can show a particular need to own a firearm (security guards, small-business owners in high-crime areas, women threatened by stalkers). Third, the laws have been relatively decentralized; as a result, gun control regulation has varied widely across jurisdictions, with strict controls concentrated in a handful of cities and states and most places having relatively few restrictions. Fourth, regulation has centered on sales conducted through primary markets, such as federally licensed gun stores; relatively few policies have sought to regulate or circumscribe informal sales. Fifth, laws have been subject to political compromise, leaving multiple "loopholes" whose shortcomings can be exploited by both gun control and gun rights advocates. The modern gun control forces' most far-reaching achievement in twenty-five years-the Brady Law, enacted in 1993-did little more than plug part of an existing loophole by requiring criminal background checks on a limited category of gun buyers.
The pattern of firearms regulation in the United States, coupled with its high gun violence rate, led historian Richard Hofstadter to proclaim America the quintessential "gun culture." Interestingly, the popular image of America as a gun culture is at odds with more than fifty years of public opinion polls, which have found both widespread concern about gun violence and overwhelming support for measures to restrict access to firearms. Summarizing the findings, Tom W. Smith observed: "One of the few constants in American public opinion over the last two decades has been that three-fourths of the population supports gun control." For example, in more than two dozen surveys conducted between 1959 and 1994, roughly 70% to 80% of respondents have favored "a law which would require a person to obtain a police permit before he or she could buy a gun." In polls going back to 1968, similarly large majorities have supported a federal law to require registration of all gun purchases. Milder proposals, such as requiring gun buyers to take a safety course and restricting youths' access to guns, have received support from a larger fraction of the population. Only a ban on gun possession has not drawn majority support over the past several decades, though 30% to 40% of the population, and a larger share of American women, have consistently supported a handgun ban.
The image of America as a gun culture is also at odds with attitudes toward gun ownership. In a survey conducted every year from 1975 to 1998, only about 20% of Americans generally or definitely thought there should be a gun in every home. That fraction has been dropping steadily since the early 1980s, to about 16%. By contrast, between 50% and 60% of respondents generally or definitely did not believe every home should have a gun, and that percentage has been rising. Likewise, roughly 45% of Americans think guns in the home reduce safety, compared with 41% who think a gun makes the home safer. At least since the early 1970s (when data began to be collected in a systematic way), gun possession in the United States has been declining. The fraction of people reporting a gun in the home in the late 1990s ranged from 37% to 43%, down from 48% to 54% in the mid-1970s (see figure A-1 in appendix A). There is no doubt that there is a gun sub-culture in the United States, but it does not necessarily comprise a majority of gun owners. Indeed, one of the most persistent findings in public opinion research is that a majority of gun owners support moderate gun control measures.
THE GUN CONTROL PARADOX, PROPERLY UNDERSTOOD
Most people want strict gun control, but they don't get it. Why? The textbook answer to the gun control paradox is straightforward. American gun owners are intense, well organized, and willing to vote for or against candidates purely on the basis of their position on gun control. Gun owners' groups, notably the National Rifle Association and its state affiliates, provide an array of incentives to attract members and then turn those membership dues toward political action. America's political system, with its multiple layers and divided powers, favors committed and well-organized groups such as the NRA, even if only a small minority of citizens embrace their views. As Robert Spitzer notes, "The nature of interest-group politics is such that the energized and intense backers of the NRA have repeatedly proven the axioms that a highly motivated, intense minority operating effectively in the interest-group milieu will usually prevail in a political contest over a larger, relatively apathetic majority."
Excerpted from Disarmed by Kristin A. Goss Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
U.S. Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), founder of the Carolyn McCarthy Center on Gun Violence and Harm Reduction
Sarah Brady, Honorary Chair, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence
Bryan Jones, author of" Politics and the Architecture of Choice", coauthor of "Agendas and Instability in American Politics"
Robert J. Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control"
Meet the Author
Kristin A. Goss is Assistant Professor of Public Policy Studies and Political Science at Duke University.
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