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Dennis A. Henigan Headshot

Is Gun Control a Cultural Issue?

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Gun control frequently is referred to - alongside issues like abortion and gay rights - as a "cultural" issue. Indeed, it is fashionable in some quarters to refer to the cluster of cultural issues as "God, guns, and gays." The Obama Administration has taken some heat for its failure to show leadership on this set of issues. As the Boston Globe described it, Obama has declared a "cease-fire in the culture wars."

But is gun control inherently, and inevitably, a cultural issue? What makes it a cultural issue? I do not doubt the real and symbolic significance of gun ownership for millions of Americans. For many Americans, particularly in rural areas, guns embody important values of self-reliance and personal liberty. But it is also true that over 80% of gun owners support extending Brady Act background checks to private sales at gun shows. Even most self-identified members of the National Rifle Association support handgun registration and mandatory safety training before purchasing a firearm. Why is gun control considered a "cultural" issue, when those who value guns support various forms of gun control?

I suggest that seeing gun control as a cultural issue is but one way of framing the issue - and it is a frame that is highly beneficial to the gun lobby. If gun control is seen as an attack on the value systems of millions of gun-owning Americans, this allows the NRA to radicalize and mobilize those gun owners to oppose even modest changes in our nation's gun laws.

For the NRA, the key to this strategy is the "slippery slope" argument - that every incremental tightening of gun laws is but a step down the slippery slope to a general gun ban. Some years ago, the NRA's Wayne LaPierre described "the plan" which is "now obvious to all who would see: First Step, enact a nationwide firearms waiting period law. Second Step, when the waiting period doesn't reduce crime, and it won't, enact a nationwide registration law. Final Step, confiscate all the registered firearms." In the words of another NRA official, "What the opposition really wants is a total ban on the private ownership of all firearms."

If, on the other hand, the gun debate is seen as addressing only the efficacy of specific, practical proposals to reduce death and injury from gunfire, then the NRA is on shaky ground because even its own members do not appear to object to such proposals. Why, for example, should extending Brady Act background checks to private sales at gun shows raise a "cultural" issue, when such checks block gun sales only to convicted felons or other dangerous people, a policy that makes all of us safer, including gun owners?

For the NRA to be successful, it must frame the issue so that, whatever the specific reform being proposed, gun owners regard the debate as "really" about whether they should be allowed to keep their guns. For the NRA, it is all about generating fear - gun owner fear that the dark cloud of gun confiscation is looming on the horizon, and the fear of politicians that gun owners will retaliate for that next step down the slippery slope.

President Clinton was a master at frustrating the gun lobby's efforts to frame the issue as about "culture," while making the issue squarely about public safety. His pitch was always that stronger gun laws were a necessary part of an overall program of fighting violent crime. He marshaled the support of law enforcement officials, who speak with ultimate credibility about the real world danger of easy criminal access to guns. President Clinton's skillful handling of the issue was key to passage of the Brady Bill and the assault weapon ban in the early 1990s. He showed that the gun issue does not have to be just another front in the endless "culture wars."

There is little doubt right now, however, that the framing of gun control as an attack on the values of gun-owning Americans now paralyzes progress toward lifesaving reforms. The Congress and the President cannot give voting rights to the District of Columbia because the gun lobby insists that it can happen only if DC's gun laws are no more strict than Montana's. The Congress and the President cannot pass credit card reform unless it gives the gun lobby an absurd amendment that legalizes loaded AK-47s and concealed weapons in national parks. The President breaks his campaign pledge to repeal a set of Bush-supported appropriations riders (the "Tiahrt Amendments") that have weakened federal gun laws.

Gun owner fears of an Obama-inspired gun ban are spiking gun sales, even though Obama gives no hint of leadership toward even modest reforms and even though the Supreme Court, in last year's ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, took such a ban "off the table," in Justice Scalia's words. The dominance of the "cultural frame" defies all reason and evidence.

It is critical that gun control advocates fight the phony "cultural" framing of the gun issue at every turn. This debate is not about the values of gun owners. It is about the safety of everyone. If the gun lobby is allowed to define the gun debate on its own deceptive terms, we face a future in which death and injury from gunfire will continue as part of the American landscape for as far as the eye can see.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's new book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy.