There’s no lack of racial dimensions to the debate about guns. For instance, all it took was members of the Black Panther Party showing up with guns on the steps of the State Capitol for California to adopt tougher gun laws, and that’s not the only time images of angry Black people with guns has spurred reform on both sides of the debate.
There’s also a gender dimension to gun-related violence. As Meghan Murphy pointed out on Alternet, women are almost never mass murderers and are under-represented among murderers in general. Obviously our culture of violence affects people in very different ways by gender.
But, I’m breaking with tradition and skirting the race and gender implications of this debate for now. Instead, I want to talk strategy.
Ever notice how in this debate the pro-control side always seems so rational, or at least relatively non-ideological, while the pro-gun side seems so irrational? Just for a minute, consider the gun show loop hole. What’s the sense of allowing people to buy guns without background checks just because they are doing it at a show or online? How is it possible that gun owners are so irrational? The answer, I think, is that they aren’t.
A survey of NRA members reveals that most of those particular gun owners support greater gun control. They aren’t the reason the NRA is so unwilling to budge from their opposition to limiting access to assault weapons. The reason the NRA won’t budge is because their political agenda is controlled less by their members than by gun manufacturers.
And if you take the profit interests of folks in the gun business into account, their almost uniform and total opposition to gun regulations is also totally rational. It also explains why there is such powerful opposition to limiting the sale of assault weapons in particular. Assault weapons are important to the gun industry because guns are durable purchases (though bullets aren’t, which explains the defensiveness about high capacity clips). Unlike toothpaste, a gun is something you don’t just use up. And if you’re buying a gun for home protection (which, btw, makes your home less rather than more safe in order to protect you from something that isn’t very likely to happen) you aren’t likely to buy more than one. So promoting more and more exotic guns, especially guns that are difficult to master and that use lots of ammunition quickly, is critical to boosting profits.
From the point of view of profit, the gun show loop hole is also totally rational. Allowing online purchases is obviously good for the gun industry. And gun shows are important as points of sale, and a way of building a community among and marketing to collectors who are the mavens of the industry.
This is what I mean by supply side gun control. And that’s why it’s strategic for gun control advocates to focus on assault weapons. I know that seems counter-intuitive when, by far, the majority of gun-related homicides involve the use of a hand gun. But limiting assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips takes a bite out of the profit motive in this debate. If the profit motive is blunted, and if we can drive a wedge between gun owners and the gun industry, more reasonable points of view might prevail.
Oh, and a couple of related tips. While engaging this debate, we need to get away from the discussion of mental illness. A national registry of the mentally ill would be a gross violation of the right to privacy. And, lest we believe only mentally ill people’s rights are at stake, we should remember that mental illness is a political construction and not just a medical one. That’s why, until pretty recently, LGBT identity was considered a form of mental illness. Anyway, the mentally ill aren’t the problem. They are less rather than more likely to commit gun-related homicides.
We should also be cognizant of the fact that there are real constitutional issues at stake. Establishing tougher gun laws isn’t the same as requiring car registration and drivers licenses. Driving a car is a privilege. The ability to bear arms is a right. There’s a big difference between those two things.
A closer parallel to second amendment rights is the right to vote. Voting is a right, but we must still register to vote, and there are eligibility standards, including laws that take voting rights away from people with past felony convictions in many states. It might even help to point out the hypocrisy indicated by this comparison. In some states that disenfranchise former felons, it’s easier to get your gun rights restored than your voting rights. Moreover, lawmakers who oppose gun control because it infringes on constitutional rights are also often among the advocates of voter I.D. laws and other forms of voter suppression. Gun crime is far more prevalent than voter fraud. In fact, the remarkably low incidence of voter fraud make additional preventative measures appear totally unnecessary.