How the US Gun Control Debate Can Break Free

A demonstrator carries an AR-15 at a gun rights rally at the Utah State Capitol on 2 March 2013 in Salt Lake City. Photo by Getty Images.
A demonstrator carries an AR-15 at a gun rights rally at the Utah State Capitol on 2 March 2013 in Salt Lake City. Photo by Getty Images.

Every time guns enter the national conversation in the US - every time there is a massacre, or a contested police shooting or a push for additional gun control measures - we are treated to a repeat of the same conversation. Gun control advocates call for new legal restrictions on gun ownership, the NRA and its Republican allies push back, tempers flare and nothing happens.

Wash, rinse, repeat. The lack of progress has become so absurd that satirical newspaper The Onion has begun to run the same story every time a mass shooting gets national attention: '"No Way To Prevent This," Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.'

One of the few things that seems widely agreed upon in this debate is that a ‘national conversation’ about the stubborn resilience of gun violence is needed. The problem is that what’s happening isn’t a conversation; it’s two groups of Americans speaking completely different languages at each other.

To the NRA and its allies, gun rights are civil rights; the right to possess firearms with minimal government oversight is inherent to the preservation of liberty. Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, said that the president’s 'words and actions amount to a form of intimidation that threatens liberty'. To this line of thought - steeped in the historical narrative of the United States as an insurgent nation - the ultimate guarantor of freedom is an armed populace willing to take arms against government overreach.

To gun control advocates, guns are a menace to public health and public safety - a critical factor that explains why the US has a vastly higher murder rate than other industrialized countries. In this view, security and liberty are products of functioning institutions and political engagement, not of citizens threatening the state’s monopoly on force.

These are fundamentally different concepts representing deeply divergent ways of looking at the world. Unsurprisingly, they play into and are exacerbated by the broader demographic drivers of partisanship in the US, which have seen the liberal and conservative coalitions increasingly divided on age, racial, geographic, religious and income lines.

The US is often described as a libertarian nation. That notion has some validity, despite the fact that libertarianism as an explicit political ideology has met with very limited success - Rand Paul’s failure to make an impact in presidential polls being the latest example. Rather, libertarianism is spread between the right and left, with the left focused on civil liberties and the right on economic liberties.

By casting gun rights in the language of civil rights, the NRA’s messaging cuts across the different strains of American libertarianism. Thus far that has proven an effective strategy, especially given that their objective is largely to protect the status quo.

But in order to protect the status quo against an increasingly well-funded and tactically adept gun control movement, the NRA and its allies have largely relied on escalatory rhetoric - hence the apocalyptic language that greeted Obama’s extremely limited executive action this week. As that language has escalated, they have abandoned the centre ground along with the pretence that they represent a libertarian ideal which most Americans basically agree with.

Ultimately, this isn’t a sustainable approach. Sooner or later, the gun control movement will learn to effectively de-link the idea of gun ownership and liberty in the minds of a significant majority of Americans. As with gay marriage, what will follow will be a growing cascade of new local and state laws that build momentum for change at the federal level.

So don’t look for a single incident to change the national conversation - instead, pay attention to how battles at the local and state level are playing out to see what the future holds for America’s gun culture.

Jacob Parakilas is assistant project director for the US Project (Chatham House)

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