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The response to Michigan’s Oxford High School shooting proves what I’ve long suspected: Gun reform has hit a wall. Within hours, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy asked for unanimous consent to reintroduce a universal background check bill. It was blocked by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, and this time there was not even much of an uproar.
Reformers face a deeper reckoning in a pending Supreme Court decision on a New York State law limiting the concealed carrying of guns mainly to those who can demonstrate their specific self-defense need to do so. Its decision could expand the legality of civilians carrying hidden guns in not just New York but nationwide.
For decades, different right-leaning groups have organized to restrict abortion access and to expand access to guns, and their efforts are now showing results. Left-leaning groups have been more reactive, organizing when they feel threatened but without any long-term strategy.
Gun reformers need a new approach, one which considers how we got we got here as a nation so we can find a way out. Instead of ignoring the gun lobby and its messaging, reformers need to step up to challenge the myths and lies promoted by the gun industry and the National Rifle Association that are blocking gun reform. Instead of deferring to politicians who rarely focus more than a few years ahead, reformers need to reach out themselves to gun owners to find common ground.
Those who want a change in American gun laws should dig in and build a gun reform movement to match what the NRA and the gun industry built up together for more than four decades, beginning after new hardline leaders took over the NRA in 1977.
Today, the modern NRA faces its first existential crisis since 1977. Lately gun reformers have gloated over the NRA’s self-inflicted embezzlement scandal that could yet bring it down. But they miss that the pro-gun movement is stronger today than it’s ever been, certain to endure now as a central plank of the GOP even if the NRA that helped nail it in place collapses.
Gun reformers must rethink what they want and learn how to talk to gun owners. Unless they can start the conversation by credibly saying no one is ever going to come for your guns, they will likely continue to fail. The gun lobby’s most successful myth has been to convince many Americans and nearly all of today’s GOP leaders that gun ownership and gun control simply cannot co-exist. They can. This claim ignores how they do co-exist in other advanced nations as well as in six states plus the District of Columbia, in which residents are required to register many or most newly purchased weapons.
Most reformers don’t realize that the measures they advocate for — like stronger background checks, red flag laws, anti-trafficking measures, anti-violence measures and more — would still only make a slight dip in bringing our gun violence down to that of other wealthy nations even if they all one day were to pass. President Biden, when under pressure, has intermittently said he would try to reimpose a new assault weapons ban. But this is something that has backfired in the past, and that today’s Supreme Court, as the legal scholars have pointed out, would likely overturn.
Few reformers seem to know that the one thing that separates our nation from every other wealthy nation, besides us having 25 times, on average, more gun violence, is that these nations all have a national system of licensing gun owners and registering their weapons, while we alone leave it up to our states. Democrats seem to have concluded that trying to implement national licensing and registration might encounter even more resistance. Yet easy access to guns is the common denominator in our gun violence, and, unless we find some way to check it, the carnage will continue.
Reformers need to talk with gun owners about regulations that would respect gun ownership but that also raise the threshold to purchase new guns, especially, to match the responsibility that comes with keeping them. New guns sold in states with weak gun laws is what fuels our ongoing gun tragedies, as up to more than half of guns seized from criminals have traveled across state lines.
Biden needs to appoint a commission to ask how we got here and options for moving forward. It should finally examine our own history of gun control, showing the passage of federal gun laws from the 1930s through the 1960s in response to gun violence from organized crime to political assassinations. And ask why that progress not only stopped, but, if anything, has only since been rolled back, and why we barely talk about any of this anymore.
Given the state of affairs today, meaningful fixes to our gun laws could take years, if not a generation. And they’ll never happen unless advocates rethink their approach.
Smyth is the author of “The NRA: The Unauthorized History.”