Once again, guns have become a subject of intense political debate. The murders in Arizona, apparently aimed at Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, have dominated the news for a couple of weeks, although more than a thousand Americans have been killed by guns since then.
Nevertheless, most political experts foresee little change in our gun control laws. They cite the powerful influence of the National Rifle Association, which opposes every effort to restrict the manufacture, sale or possession of anything associated with guns. The NRA has been an incredibly successful pressure group. They have been able to turn a minority position into the law of the land, to repeatedly turn back attempts to regulate guns, to prevent researchers from fully investigating the effects of guns on our lives. Their opinions about guns are more influential than the recommendations of policemen.
A majority of Americans favor laws which would restrict guns (a wide variety of polling data can be found at pollingreport.com/guns.htm). Polls back to 1990 show that a majority favored stricter gun laws through 2007. In the last couple of years, those favoring stricter laws have dropped to 44 percent, still higher than those who want no changes. When more specific questions are asked, it is clear that a large majority of Americans favor particular restrictions. When the ban on assault weapons expired in 2004, 61 percent said they were “dissatisfied”; since then, a majority continue to support a ban on assault weapons.
Last year, three-quarters of those polled by CBS News and the NY Times said that private businesses should be able to prohibit customers from openly carrying weapons. A CNN poll in 2008 found that two-thirds said that the Second Amendment protected the right of individuals to own guns. But then 80 percent said that guns should be registered with local government and that there should be a waiting period after purchase before the gun is delivered.
New polls about high capacity magazines show that nearly two-thirds favor banning their sale. A minority of Americans, consistently about a third, favor banning the sale of all handguns, except to police.
Politicians fear the power of gun advocates, but again, a poll indicates this may be exaggerated. In 2007 people were asked if they would be more or less likely to support a presidential candidate who favored stricter gun control laws: 55 percent said they would be more likely to support such a candidate, and only 32 percent said less likely.
Why support gun control? Not out of disdain for hunting or gun enthusiasts, but because of concerns for safety. Since the 1960s, over 1 million Americans have been killed by guns, and there have been millions more gunshot injuries. Every three days, a child is killed by firearms.
Guns can be useful in defending against criminal attacks. Every year civilians use guns in self-defense thousands of times. But although half of US households own guns, violent criminals are seven times more likely to shoot their victims than the victims are to defend themselves. Only about 1 percent of violent crimes are met with gun use by the victims. The FBI says that for every time in 1997 that a civilian used a handgun to kill in self-defense, 43 people lost their lives in handgun homicides.
I come from Maine, where hunting is a way of life and an important source of food. I recently enjoyed venison steaks given to me by a friend. But when people advocate for the sale of magazines with 30 bullets, or oppose the regulation of assault rifles, or argue against the ban of plastic guns which can pass metal detectors, or demand the right to carry guns into Starbucks, then I see more than the defense of the Second Amendment. I see an unreasoning political stance, which makes all of our lives less secure. A legal system which allows a mentally unstable 22-year-old to buy a semiautomatic pistol and a 33-bullet magazine needs fixing.
The NRA is not responsible for stifling debate on guns in America. We are. We, the majority of Americans who believe that guns should be regulated in the interests of our own safety, have allowed ourselves to be out-shouted, out-maneuvered, and out-spent. We have allowed a single-minded, uncompromising, vocal minority to put us in danger every day. We have allowed our message to get drowned out.
We must be willing to say out loud, what we know to be true: It is too easy to get a gun in America and to kill people.
Steve Hochstadt of Jacksonville is a professor of history at Illinois College.