The Chronicle Review

The Missing Movement for Gun Control

October 20, 2006

After the mass shooting of Amish schoolgirls in idyllic Lancaster County, anguished Pennsylvanians grappled with a question that has preoccupied Americans for decades: Will we ever get real gun control here?

Less than a week before the massacre, in which a 32-year-old milk-truck driver bound and executed five children and seriously injured five more, the state legislature had met in special session to consider a raft of crime-control bills, including a measure that would have limited sales of handguns to one per month per person. The measure failed, even though an estimated 2,000 people had marched on Harrisburg to demand its passage.

As Pennsylvania gun-control supporters mourn their losses — of legislation and of life — there is a glimmer of hopeful news for their fellow advocates nationwide: This time, at least, citizens showed up to demand action on guns.

In the postwar era, America has witnessed firearms-related horrors with numbing regularity: mass murders of children in otherwise peaceful schools, workplace massacres, homicide "epidemics" in urban neighborhoods, and sensational assassinations of beloved leaders. And while these episodes typically provoke a momentary outcry from frightened and angry citizens, none of those events has managed to spark an organized, sustained, grass-roots movement for stricter gun laws. Why?

The easy answer requires only three familiar letters: N-R-A. With four million members, the National Rifle Association enjoys a well-deserved reputation of invincibility. When Fortune magazine surveys Washington insiders about the most influential interest groups, the NRA routinely ranks at or near the top of the list. When scholars study the gun issue, whatever the question, the answer is inevitably "the mighty NRA." Those observers are not misguided: The NRA is strong and effective. In an era of declining political participation, it has done a spectacular job of mobilizing its members, and it has won more political battles than it has lost.

But scholars' single-minded focus on the 1.9 percent of American adults who belong to the NRA misses another critical group: the 98.1 percent of Americans who do not. Surveys show that, unlike the NRA, most Americans — including, in some cases, most gun owners — support modest restrictions on firearms access, such as mandatory training and licensing of handgun owners and the registration of handguns. So where is this silent majority of gun-control supporters? The answer is: out there, angry, and largely unorganized. Where is the serious research on this curiously unorganized majority? It's largely missing.

The absence of any real gun-control movement, or scholarship thereon, is puzzling in light of the nation's dismal history of gun-related trauma. In any given year, roughly 30,000 Americans die by gunfire, putting the U.S. gun-death rate at 30 times that of Britain's. Fully one-third of U.S. presidents since the Civil War — as well as entertainers, political leaders, and other prominent Americans — have been assassinated or threatened by assailants with guns. Roughly one in three American adults reports that someone close to him or her — such as a friend or relativehas been shot. Polls going back more than three decades have found that about 20 percent of Americans have been threatened by a gun or shot at. And about once a decade, the United States suffers an "epidemic" of gun violence. Even in calmer years, the nation witnesses regular "rampage shootings" in workplaces and schools.

What accounts for the missing movement for gun control in America? The answer isn't simple, but three

explanations dwarf all others. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the NRA isn't one of them — though it does play a role in each. Nor do the oft-cited explanations suffice: Americans are enraptured by the Second Amendment; white people don't care about gun violence because it's a "black problem"; people are satisfied with the gun laws in their state; or gun-control sympathizers are apathetic, figuring someone else will take care of the problem. The real reason the gun-control movement has been, at best, a movement constrained boils down to three factors: a historical shift in patterns of financial support that works against controversial reform movements; the failure by gun-control leaders to develop a message that would inspire everyday Americans; and the adoption of policy goals and organizational strategies that sought a quick fix from Washington, rather than a slower but potentially more influential groundswell from the grass roots.

First, let us examine the resource question. A century ago, a movement for gun control almost certainly would have been led by women's reform organizations, possibly in concert with Protestant churches. Indeed, when Congress considered the first federal firearms legislation in the 1930s, women's clubs were its principal lobbyists. For much of American history, federated voluntary associations of women and churchgoers provided money, volunteers, and leadership to reform movements. But by the late 20th century, reform movements started relying on different sources of support, notably professionally staffed philanthropic foundations and government bureaucracies.

Why did this shift matter for the gun-control cause? Foundations consider themselves risk takers but live in constant fear of inciting increased regulation; thus, they tend to shy away from politically controversial causes. Foundations also like to support "root cause" approaches to problems, even if regulatory policies might do more good. Finally, foundations face restrictions on the sorts of advocacy work they can support. With a few exceptions — notably the Joyce Foundation and George Soros's Open Society Institute — very little foundation money has flowed to gun-control groups.

From the early 1970s through the early 1990s, at least three government agencies did begin to engage in the debate over gun control — for example, by collecting authoritative data on gun violence, working to make gun violence a greater agency priority, and giving grants to scholars studying the causes and consequences of gun availability. But officials in those agencies — the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms — quickly learned their lesson. Under pressure from the NRA, Congress either cut their budgets for gun-related activities, restricted their freedom to set agency priorities, or sent the message that supporting gun-violence prevention would cost civil servants their jobs, or all three. With traditional patrons no longer available and new patrons under attack, the gun-control cause floundered.

The message also mattered. The NRA and other gun-rights groups had powerful symbolism on their side. They could quote the Constitution, as well as invoke timeless American values of rugged individualism and suspicion of government. Of course, many movements in American history have managed to find the language to prevail against such "all American" arguments. Prohibitionists rooted in women's and church groups, for example, persuaded two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of state legislatures to outlaw a popular consumer product with a powerful political base. What the movement against alcohol, as well as the movements against abortion and tobacco, managed to do that the movement for gun control didn't — at least until recently — was figure out a message that would trump the classical liberal assumption that liberty is paramount. That message: Regulating liberty is necessary to protect children. The gun-control forces didn't embrace such maternalist rhetoric until 2000, when a coterie of suburban women organized the massive Million Mom March in Washington and nearly 70 cities around the country.

The third, and perhaps most important, reason for the "missing movement" is that its leaders did not, and in some cases could not, pursue strategies conducive to mass mobilization. In the mid-1970s, when gun control started to coalesce as a nationwide cause, leaders in Washington dedicated themselves to a lofty goal: a federal ban on handguns. This "rational, national" strategy seemed to make sense in an era when federal government responsibility was expanding and so was gun violence. Gun-control leaders reasoned that only a loophole-free, nation-spanning law would keep guns from flowing into the wrong hands.

While the rational, national strategy was grounded in policy logic, it was politically shortsighted and hurt the gun-control campaign for decades to come. For one, because Congress was the only target of early gun-control leaders, they decided they did not need to create or nurture state and local gun-control organizations when a flurry of letters from outraged individuals in key Congressional districts would suffice. In a sense, then, no gun-control movement emerged because national strategists decided not to build one.

The bold decision to seek a ban on handguns also stifled the incipient movement. While the majority of Americans have always supported strict gun laws, they have never favored a ban. So from the start, the handgun-control "movement" alienated millions of its potential foot soldiers. In addition, because America's fragmented political system favors incremental policy making, comprehensive proposals typically fail; when they fail over and over again, as the handgun-ban gambits did, activists grow discouraged, and movements founder. What is more, while Congressional legislation may serve as an important goal, bills do not provide a sufficient foundation on which to build a movement. Movements are fueled by volunteers, and volunteers need things to do to sustain their engagement. They also need to accumulate small wins to build momentum. By themselves, bills in Congress typically provide neither.

Finally, the handgun-ban gambits emboldened gun owners to become the political juggernaut that they are today. Hard-line gun-rights supporters, alert to the growing threat posed by the "gun grabbers," staged a famous takeover of the NRA board in 1977. Then and there, the new NRA decided never again to surrender to the siren song of political compromise but rather to fight all gun-control measures, no matter how modest, at all levels of government. Almost immediately, the NRA launched a state-by-state campaign — whose importance gun controllers did not fully grasp — to secure "pre-emption" laws. By banning localities from regulating firearms, pre-emption stripped the incipient gun-control movement of the local projects around which it was beginning to mobilize. When the NRA's pre-emption campaign began, nearly 9 out of 10 states allowed local regulation of firearms; by the end, in early 2005, that figure was 1 in 10.

S tung by those and other losses, national gun-control leaders have become more sympathetic to the movement-building approach. The two major gun-control organizations long ago ceased calling for a national handgun ban, but they remained ambivalent about building a grass-roots movement, in part because nurturing chapters is expensive and difficult and in part because national leaders' priority remained national legislation.

The 1999 massacre at Columbine High School near Denver and the Million Mom March a year later helped change that thinking. While the press branded the march a flop — because Congress didn't respond and because the march's organizational shell imploded — the moms actually succeeded in two core ways. They helped persuade national gun-control leaders that local organizing was viable, and they laid the groundwork for a nation-spanning gun-control movement. In late 2001, the nation's largest gun-control group, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, adopted the struggling Million Mom March chapters, giving the national lobby an organized network of grass-roots activists for the first time in its 27-year history. The other major gun-control lobby, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (formerly the Coalition to Ban Handguns), likewise turned its attention to raising money for and working with state gun-control groups during the 1990s and beyond.

The reasons for the missing movement for gun control are complex, but the reason for the missing scholarship is disturbingly simple. Social scientists are trained to study phenomena that have happened — the observable, the countable — and professional rewards flow to those who count observable phenomena well. This axiom holds even though it violates the cardinal rule of social science: You can't build a solid theory of the way the world works without looking both at outcomes that have occurred and at those that have not. And yet, the theory of social movements is derived exclusively from movements that have occurred. As my work on gun control demonstrates, missing movements draw our attention to the vital but underappreciated roles that leadership, language, organization, and strategy play not only in encouraging but also in discouraging the civic action of concerned citizens.

After the Columbine shootings, when Congress refused to act, gun-control leaders realized that new approaches would be necessary if they were to do more encouraging and less discouraging of vigorous citizen action. This was the lesson of Columbine: Only a true grass-roots movement for gun control can defeat the NRA and produce the firearms policies Americans desire.

Kristin A. Goss is an assistant professor of public-policy studies and political science at Duke University. Her book, "Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America," was published last month by Princeton University Press.