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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Shots in the Dark: The Policy, Politics, and Symbolism of Gun Control / Edition 288

Shots in the Dark: The Policy, Politics, and Symbolism of Gun Control / Edition 288

by William J. Vizzard
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Starting with Columbine, school shootings have brought the issue of gun control to the forefront of the American consciousness. Why it won't rise to the top of the political agenda is an important part of the story that Will Vizzard tells. Drawing on Congressional hearings, interviews, thirty years of research, and personal experience as a special agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the author takes a step back from both advocates and opponents of gun control to survey the U.S. gun landscape. What he finds there is a scene dominated by policy and public opinion extremism as well as a powerful combination of history and symbolism that impede the resolution of this conflict. Neither a call for gun prohibition nor a diatribe against gun control, this book is intended for those with a particular interest in firearms as well as serious students of public policy and criminal justice. In addition to covering a century of gun control policy, the author addresses such current issues as assault weapons, right-to-carry and concealed-carry laws, school shootings, and recent elections. Unlike its several counterparts, SHOTS IN THE DARK sheds light on a balanced and pragmatic approach to gun control legislation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780847695607
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 09/28/2000
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

William J. Vizzard is associate professor of criminal justice at California State University, Sacramento, and a former agent, supervisor, and Special Agent in Charge in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Framing the Issue

On the morning of April 20, 1999, Americans watched on live television as terrified students fled Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. While police SWAT teams rushed students from the building and medical personnel worked frantically to save injured victims, it became apparent that two heavily armed students had systematically murdered over a dozen of their fellow students and faculty members and severely injured many more before committing suicide. Americans groped for some understanding of this horrific and apparently irrational event by applying a variety of explanations ranging from a decline in the role of religion in American life to inadequate security precautions in schools. Many focused on the necessary implements of the carnage—guns—and their ready availability. A new wave of gun-control activity began in Congress, and suddenly the press featured a plethora of articles on guns and gun laws. Yet, almost two years later, no new legislation has passed Congress and media interest appears in decline. For many, these events demonstrated the capacity of a narrow special interest to thwart common sense and the will of the people; for others, they symbolized the victory of reason over emotional scapegoating.

    Would different gun-control policy make such events less likely? If so, what policy? For those hostile to guns, the need for new and far more restrictive policy seems obvious. How can one explain two teenagers acquiring the firepower necessary to commit such a deadly massacre? For those raised in rural areas, where young peoplehave always had easily available guns without perpetrating mass killing, access seems no more unusual than access to automobiles, alcohol, or cigarettes, all of which kill people.

    The dilemma is captured by a recent event in Northern California. Two young gang members, armed with pistols and wearing masks, forced their way into the home of a couple, both prominent physicians, in Alamo, California. The intruders held the wife and her brother at gunpoint but apparently were unaware of the husband, who responded by firing his own gun. In the ensuing battle the husband and one of the intruders were fatally shot, and the wife and the second intruder were seriously wounded. Does this event demonstrate the futility or utility of guns for home defense? Did the presence of a firearm in the home result in the unnecessary death of the husband and injury of his wife? Did the husband's action benefit the larger society by preventing future crimes by these two offenders or by deterring other potential offenders from similar crimes? Did the failure of existing gun laws to prevent the convicted felon-intruders from acquiring guns confirm the futility of all gun control, or did it highlight the inadequacy of current laws and the need for stricter controls? Finally, would any gun law likely to be adopted nationally have changed any aspect of this event?

    As policy theorist Deborah Stone has so aptly conveyed, policy-making is a political process in which competitive interests vie to control policy process by controlling the language and definition of events. Each of the events just described offers rich potential for building a narrative that gives it meaning and potential influence on policy. No policy arena provides a clearer example of the role of politics, language, and symbolism in the policy process than does gun control. No realm for quiet accommodation among political elites, gun control generates the rough and tumble of the American democratic process, warts and all. It is political trench warfare in which each side distrusts and dislikes the other and views neutrality or compromise as moral failure.


Previously, I have argued that both advocates and opponents have conceptualized gun control in the context of four basic paradigms. The most persistent of these paradigms characterizes gun control as a mechanism for crime control. A second paradigm places gun control in the context of social order or sovereignty. In the third, sociologists have conceptualized the issue as a symbolic conflict over values and worldview, and recently the issue has been couched in a fourth: the language of public health. To these four I have added a fifth—political symbolism. Although politicians formulate their positions in the language of ethics, rationality, and public interest, they are keenly aware of the importance of symbolism. I progressively am convinced that many politicians view gun control more as a potent political symbol for defining themselves and their opponents than as a critical policy question.

    Each of these paradigms has components of reality and myth, and each emphasizes different language, values, and assumptions. Clearly, these paradigms overlap. Both the crime control and social-order paradigms emphasize restriction of access to instruments of force and violence. The crime-control paradigm, however, focuses on individual acts of violence, while social control focuses more on the right of the state to maintain a monopoly on legitimate force. The greater the willingness to rely on government for social order, the greater the acceptance of gun control as a legitimate mechanism of social control.

    The struggles between opponents and proponents have been directed as much to controlling the language and presumptions of these paradigms as at the direct control of the political process. As such, the issue of gun control offers a look at the policy process in the United States from a unique perspective. This has not been a conflict over who gets what, when, and how, as Harold Lasswell characterized politics. This has been a conflict over ideas, values, perceptions, and, most of all, the role of government. The history of gun control confirms that sometimes ideas matter more than assets. This has been a struggle over what Robert Reich has called "public ideas" more than over process, power, or resources. Underlying this entire issue are powerful American myths that make compromise difficult, if not impossible.

    The importance of the gun as a mythical symbol in the United States can be demonstrated by any review of popular culture. The frontiersman, cowboy, soldier, private detective, and policeman have provided this country with most of its mythical heroes, and each has been conspicuously armed. No other object is so common in the popular culture. At times, dogs, horses, airplanes, and automobiles have rivaled firearms, but the latter seem always to prevail. As such, the firearm has taken on a cultural importance in the United States unrivaled in any other industrialized nation.


Intellectual and cultural paradigms provide the primary conceptual structures for the examination, discussion, and understanding of public policies. Each policy area has dominant paradigms at any given time in history. Crafted in language, these paradigms provide a structure for use in examining any problem. The field of international affairs has, for instance, been replete with such intellectual structure. The Cold War was the most basic of paradigms for over 30 years. As a result of the Vietnam War, Watergate, U.S. action in Chile, and other events, an alternative paradigm gained widespread legitimacy. Each of these paradigms served as an intellectual prism for its user, as it was used to organize and interpret data. Understanding the structure, emphasis, and language of paradigms provides insight into how an issue is perceived.

    In the case of gun control (and probably many other policy issues), some paradigms have alternative constructions in which conflicting groups concur on focus but disagree as to interpretation. An example would be a power paradigm, in which both radicals and conservatives perceive the issue as control of power, while moderates perceive it otherwise. In this case, both radicals and conservatives agree on the integral role of power in politics but disagree on who should exercise that power and to what purpose. Gun control highlights a critical fault line in American political thought between a collective and individual focus. This difference in intellectual orientation has proven critical in the analysis of gun-control proposals. In addition, the issue of gun control itself is conceptualized in several paradigms that must be understood to facilitate examination of the issue.

Crime Control

Built on the assumption that easy access to firearms either encourages crime or exacerbates the level of violence associated with it, the crime-control paradigm has been at the center of most arguments by control advocates and is the one most frequently attacked by opponents. Advocates find the widespread criminal use of firearms in the United States evidence of a need for more restrictive firearms policies. Although it has occasionally been argued that the availability of guns exacerbates the attitudes that motivate crime, most argument centers on the escalation of violence facilitated by the presence of firearms. When proponents utilize this paradigm, they focus primarily on handguns, "Saturday night specials," assault weapons, or other categories of firearms believed to be particularly suitable for criminal purposes. The language is often cost/benefit in orientation, and the narrowing of application serves to minimize their apparent cost and impact of controls.

    Opponents respond with direct attacks on the assumption of benefit. Their arguments historically have centered on the inability to obtain compliance with the law by criminals. They stress the impracticality of controlling over 220 million firearms, point to the 20,000 existing firearm laws that "do not work," and generally attack the cause-and-effect argument. Opponents generally concentrate less on the specifics of cost when dealing with the general public than when addressing core constituencies. Costs usually consist of inconveniences for some gun owners that would not be fully appreciated by the general public. Most recently, opponents have attempted to control the public conceptualization of this paradigm. The research of Gary Kleck and John Lott has provided considerable legitimacy to the arguments that the presence of guns reduces crime through deterrence.


In 1972, the Wall Street Journal portrayed the battle over gun control in the United States as a symbolic conflict between two identifiable social groups. The advocates were characterized as the "cosmopolitans" and the opponents as the "traditionalists." The former were urban, educated, and internationalist in their orientation; they looked to Western Europe as a model for governance and tended toward liberal, democratic values on most social issues. The traditionalists were viewed as rural or small town in orientation, their frame of reference for governance was domestic, and they were less tolerant in their social values.

    Invoked more by scholars than by policy advocates or politicians, this paradigm lies just below the surface of many advocacy arguments. Barry Bruce-Briggs picked up the theme in his 1976 essay, as did Lee Kennett and James Anderson, who characterized the widespread gun ownership in the United States as embarrassing to internationally oriented, cosmopolitan America. Osha Davidson's history of the NRA focused more on politics than culture, but found the cultural paradigms and stereotypes to be a critical component of the political history.

    Other writers have gone beyond simply characterizing the advocates and opponents of gun control. William Tonso concurred with the characterization of the groups but criticized the advocates for the practice of "sagecraft" based on their personal biases rather than any utilitarian purpose. John Kaplan argued that the movement for gun control parallels the Prohibition movement and is primarily symbolic, with a goal of declaring some people less worthy than others. Don Kates has characterized opponents of gun control as being motivated by a normative opposition to self-defense, a perspective that is surprisingly close to that of gun-control advocate Robert Spitzer. Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins have couched their perspective of this concept in crime-control language, with advocates seeing crime as an outgrowth of social forces, and opponents perceiving sharp definitions of good and evil between ordinary citizens and criminals.

    Many people probably arrive at their positions on gun control based primarily on their perceptions of its utility. Many more most likely come to their positions based on self-interests or innate acceptance of or distaste for guns. No doubt both of these elements influence those who have strong ideological leanings. But repeated interviews with persons having strong views on the subject of gun control reveal certain defined and consistent ideological patterns. Advocates are more collectively oriented and more disposed toward governmental solutions, while opponents are far more suspicious of collective decisions and solutions and are more likely to look to the individual for solutions. This difference becomes particularly fractious over the issue of self-defense. Opponents of gun control view the use of violence in defense of oneself or one's property as a fundamental right, while gun-control advocates more often view individual self-defense as counter-productive or illegitimate. Ultimately, gun control may be more a test of libertarianism than of liberalism versus conservatism.

    Three primary influences have contributed to a highly individualistic and libertarian strain in American cultural tradition. The first of these was a tradition of suspicion of authority born of revolution and independence. The second was a vast frontier, offering space and free land to all who would claim it. The third was Protestantism of the most decentralized type, which placed the maximum emphasis on the individual's relationship with God. Historian Richard Hofstadter traces the roots of the American obsession with firearms to both the frontier and the Lockeian tradition that looked to an armed populace. Although he did not consider the gun issue, political-theorist Robert Dahl attributed the lack of European-style class conflict in the United States as being largely due to this independence spawned by philosophy and opportunity for land. Evidence of this persistent national trait appears in the resistance to national health care, the absence of a national identity system, resistance to mass transit and land-use planning, and the recurrent American preference for suburban and rural living.

    Political theorist Benjamin Barber characterized American political thought as being heavily anarchist. He also saw strong elements of minimalism and pragmatism that combine with suspicion for authority to produce two distinct approaches to government. In Barber's view, minimalism combined with anarchy results in support for Madisonian restraints on government. Pragmatism combined with anarchy results in commitment to preservation of rights through government action. In either case, Barber argues, the result is concentration on individual rights and the restraint of government in preference to collective rights and government action.

    This historic American focus on the individual provides an explanation as to why gun-control advocates have been less than successful in advancing their worldview, and even why they have often focused on particular "evil guns" In American political values, the individual is supreme and the state must justify every intervention. Clearly, narcotics were demonized to justify the type of strict control and intervention that has been imposed. With over 220 million firearms in the United States, most of which are not being unlawfully used at any given time, similar demonization is not likely. In addition, the historic reverence Americans extend to individual rights and the Constitution constitutes an additional burden for control advocates, even though the courts have not invalidated any gun-control law as a violation of the Second Amendment.

    As with all issues in the United States, ideology and worldview alone are not the only components of the cultural paradigm. Guns themselves evoke strong symbolic reaction among much of the population either as positive symbols of recreation and healthy activity or negative symbols of danger and violence. Both gun ownership and positive attitudes toward guns correlate positively with early exposure to recreational use of firearms.

Sovereignty and Social Order

Historically, control advocates have been reticent to address the topic in the context of order and state sovereignty. No such hesitancy is found on the part of the most ardent foes of gun control. Even more, scholarly opponents such as Kates and law professor Robert Cottrol trace the origins of most gun-control efforts to the desire of a dominant population to control political or social unrest. It is not surprising that advocates tread lightly on the issue of sovereignty and social order. The underlying question is one of legitimate control of power. Legal scholar Sanford Levinson opines that the view of state resides at the very heart of the conflict over the Second Amendment and gun control, with advocates accepting a Weberian definition of the state as an institution with a monopoly over the use of force, and opponents being tied to a populace view.

    Americans have long been ill at ease with the issue of sovereignty. This concern can be found in the discourse on control of the militia during the debate over ratification of the Constitution. Although the issue was largely resolved by the Civil War, the subsequent decline of the state militias, and the creation of a standing army, it does not appear to be an issue with which Americans are fully comfortable. This may ultimately be because, as political theorist John Rohr argues, the concept of state, in the European sense, does not exist in the United States. If the ultimate legitimate authority is the Constitution, who then has a legitimate monopoly on the use of force?

    It is in this area of order—control over legitimate use of force and sovereignty—that Barber's paradigms of American political thought become most significant. The minimalist seeks to disperse power and its means through limiting government—thus opposing controls on weapons by the state. The pragmatist seeks controls that protect one citizen against another, and therefore looks for "reasonable controls." The issue of state sovereignty is essentially avoided because of the character of the political value system. Even the pragmatist can be expected to be less than enthusiastic in actually implementing sanctions to enforce controls, particularly against those who cannot be seen as immediately and directly threatening others. This pattern, in fact, is common.

    Although many Americans are ill at ease with the sovereignty and social-order paradigm, it is likely the heart of the gun-control issue. Unlike the issue of crime control, for which the practical utility can be debated forever, sovereignty and control of force are value issues. As such, positions can be pursued on principle as opposed to research and evidence. Scholarly debate relating to this paradigm has centered around the meaning of the Second Amendment. In general, a commentator's view of the controlling constitutional law can be assumed to closely coincide with his or her position on sovereignty and attitude toward firearms; however, there are exceptions. At a more pragmatic policy level, debate centers around the legitimacy of individual self-defense and the authority of the state to control when, where, and how persons may possess guns.

Public Health

In many ways, the public health paradigm is the diametric opposite of the sovereignty paradigm. Instead of the language of law and rights, it is cast in the language of utility, risk, and social costs. Although it considers crime, it is focused on accidents and suicides. References to these topics were uncommon prior to the 1980s, when the public health community began to study the health implications of guns. By the end of the decade, a variety of articles began to appear, primarily in medical journals, that focused on the public health implications of the presence of firearms in society.

    In the 1990s the public health paradigm largely solidified around issues of firearm access, storage, and safety devices. It differs from the crime-control paradigm by expanding from a focus on the impact of guns on crime to the impact on accidents and suicides as well. This presents a challenge for opponents of gun control that is very different than those presented by other paradigms. Here the analysis is primarily cost benefit, and the ability to demonstrate benefit is limited by the structure of the paradigm. In addition to introducing new language and perspective into the gun debate, this new paradigm has facilitated the expansion of interest in gun control among the medical community. Physicians such as Garen Wintemute have become some of the most prominent advocates of gun control.

    Although gun-control opponents have begun to respond to this paradigm, they have not presented an alternative construction as yet. Many control advocates viewed this new paradigm as a means for shifting the debate away from deadlocked positions and accessing concerns over public costs and safety. Although control opponents have been less than successful in accessing the public health literature, they have responded in other media. For many opponents of gun control, the public health community has become the focal point of their fears and hostility.

Political Symbolism

It is difficult to sort political ideology from political expediency in any issue. When a politician holds a position that places him at political risk or in opposition to his natural allies and supporters, ideological commitment can be inferred. Thus there is little doubt that liberal Democratic Representative John Dingell's (Mich.) opposition to gun control is heartfelt. On the other hand, adequate historical record exists to demonstrate rather conclusively that some positions are rooted almost exclusively in opportunism. Such was likely the case in the late Senator Thomas Dodd's (D-Conn.) pursuit of firearms legislation in the 1960s (see chapter 7). In most cases, however, ideology and opportunity most likely overlap, making differentiation difficult.

    Although a majority of individual legislators can calculate the political risks and benefits of specific gun-control positions, determining the impact on a national political party constitutes a more elusive task. The Democratic Party controlled Congress and the White House at the passage of the National Firearms Act (NFA), the Gun Control Act (GCA), and the Brady Law. In spite of this, numerous Republicans supported the NFA and GCA, and the Republican Party did not incorporate a position in opposition to gun-control legislation in its national platform until 1976. Even then, the platform reflected more the emerging Reagan faction than the position of President Gerald Ford. Likewise, Democrats have been divided, with most Southern and Western democrats opposing gun control.

    By 1980, however, the Republican Southern strategy, which began in 1964, had reached full fruition. Gun control took its place among social issues such as abortion and school prayer as a critical part of the symbolic campaign to break Southern and Western voters permanently away from the Democrats. Opposition to gun control has remained a core social issue for Republicans since that time and has proven useful at least at the congressional level.

    So long as the Democrats enjoyed Western and Southern support, the issue of gun control was highly problematic at the national level. Support for gun control was expected by their Northern liberal base but was symbolically damaging to both congressional and presidential candidates in the West and South. After modest efforts by the Carter administration generated substantial reaction, Democrats largely avoided the issue until the campaign of 1992. In that campaign and in the presidential campaign of 1996, Bill Clinton openly espoused support for the limited, and largely symbolic, firearm legislation. Gun control became a key component of Clinton's strategy to nullify, the "soft on crime" label that the Republicans had managed to hang on Democrats in every election since 1968. It would appear that gun control has moved onto the permanent political agenda as a symbolic issue, although, as I will explain later, not on the real issue agenda of either party. Gun control, as a symbolic mechanism for attracting and holding voter loyalty, has not received the same scholarly attention as the other four paradigms. It should not be surprising, however, that those who have used symbolic stands on gay marriage, domestic abuse, capital punishment, flag burning, and a host of other issues that either lack substance generally or in the form presented might view gun control as a political mechanism. Substantial evidence to support the rising importance of gun control as a symbolic issue can be seen in California's 1998 election campaigns.


Symbols, myth, culture, and paradigms do not provide the entire context for understanding the evolution of gun-control policy, but they do provide a critical element. In the following chapters I address the specifics of gun control, with a primary emphasis on national rather than state and local policy. Although the ensuing chapters move from the conceptual and theoretical to the specific and concrete, they seek to explain the development of events in light of the theory presented in this chapter, while recognizing the limits of that theory. Some events owe as much to unique, idiosyncratic circumstances as to larger forces.

Table of Contents

Part 1 Where We Are Chapter 2 Framing the Issue Chapter 3 Crime, Culture, and Markets Chapter 4 Control Strategies and the Law Chapter 5 Interest Groups and Public Attitudes Chapter 6 The Evolving Politics of Gun Control Part 7 How We Got Here Chapter 8 Early History Chapter 9 The Gun Control Act of 1968 Chapter 10 A Bureaucracy Unprepared Chapter 11 Reaction Chapter 12 Brady and Beyond Part 13 Where We Are Going Chapter 14 What Could Be Done and Why It Won't Be Chapter 15 Gun Control and the Policy Process

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Shots in the Dark: The Policy, Politics and Symbolism of Gun Control 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
guitaoist3 More than 1 year ago
if any of the schools that had shootings were non gunfree zones, none of the tragedies would have occurred.