Cover Story

Gun control: Future hangs on misunderstood majority of gun owners

Gun control seen through the eyes of the misunderstood majority of gun owners is more nuanced and complex than the absolutism of America's big gun lobbies. The Obama administration is courting this breed of centrist, gun-friendly Americans on the fence about gun control.

By , Staff writer

  • Shooting survivor Margaret Stroup.
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    Gun control and the misunderstood majority of gun owners is the topic of the Feb. 18, 2012 Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine cover story project. Shooting survivor Margaret Stroup (pictured here, and featured in the story link below) has decided to protect herself with the kind of weapon that almost killed her.
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Nick Brinley was totally conspicuous the other day as he walked onto the State Capitol steps here armed with a loaded AR-15 – the very same make of short-barreled military-style rifle used by Adam Lanza to murder his mom, 20 grade-schoolers, and six Sandy Hook Elementary School staff members on Dec. 14, in Connecticut.

Instead of menacing the public, though, Mr. Brinley joined about 350 other gun enthusiasts waving signs saying things such as "Don't mess with the Constitution, it ain't right – [signed] Me" to protest a post-Sandy Hook gun-control package being floated in Congress, and backed by President Obama.

"If you want to see a place where nothing's going to happen, this is it – no one's getting shot here today," said Brinley in the curt tone of a Hollywood action hero.

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But as Brinley leaned self-confidently against a railing as though a backpack, not a deadly firearm, were slung across his back, it also became clear that his gun stance contains more nuance and complexity than the absolutism of America's big gun lobbies, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Gun Owners of America, which Ron Paul once called "the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington."

A 30-something suburban aerospace engineer with studs in both ears, a fashionable haircut, and business-casual attire, Brinley says his right to buy and shoot AR-15s should never be curtailed, as bills in Congress now propose.

But, by the same token, he acknowledges there are fundamental problems with America's gun regulation system, citing holes in the background-check process and cross checks with mental-health records. That puts him at odds with the NRA's stated positions.

"OK, it's ridiculous to ban 10, 20, or 30-round magazines, but I'm not really sure who really needs a 100-round magazine," he says about a proposal to limit purchases of 10-round magazines.

After Newtown, there's indeed a new conversation rising from what appears to be a collective desire by Americans to heal the country's penchant for senseless gun violence.

The NRA will probably never back down from its absolutist "no infringement" stance on the Second Amendment, but polls and interviews with everyday gun owners suggest that even stalwart shooting range enthusiasts like Brinley see the current system as imperfect, even dangerous.

Integral to the president's push for "common sense" gun controls, then, is engaging an emergent breed of centrist, gun-friendly Americans on the fence about whether new controls will effectively thwart violence – or prove a political Trojan horse to disarm lawful gun owners.

Judging by the White House use of the term "gun safety" instead of "gun control," and given the release in early February of a striking picture of Mr. Obama blasting away with a shotgun at a skeet range, it's clear to many gun-policy experts that this misunderstood majority of gun owners and sympathizers may, indeed, hold the key to plugging the collective safety loopholes in state and federal gun laws.

In fact, gun culture experts contend, gun owners are increasingly folks like Parker Russell, a Smart Car-driving cellphone store manager in Decatur, Ga.; Paul and Bekalyn Craig, a young married couple with two little kids in suburban Canton, Ga.; and Melvin Clark Jr., an African-American firearms instructor in Boston who says 90 percent of those now taking his concealed-carry classes are touching a gun for the first time – the highest number he's seen in his years of teaching gun safety.

As people have moved away from rural areas, it seems "we should have less gun ownership and less gun culture," says Jennifer Carlson, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto who is working on a book tentatively titled "Clinging to Their Guns? The New Politics of Gun Carry in Everyday Life."

"But something very particular is happening to American cities," she adds. "There's a lot of people who are turning to guns in response to what they see as the complacency of their parents, that life isn't a white picket fence, that this isn't a happy suburbia – Mom and Dad were naive, and I'm carrying a gun because I understand how the world really works. It's at the epicenter of this urban, postindustrial decay story" of cities like Detroit, where both gun ownership and justifiable homicides are at an all-time high in reaction to dwindling municipal services, including police protection.

Given the heated national rhetoric, both sides of the gun-control debate sometimes seem oblivious to the fact that, in 2008, Ameri-ca quietly became a majority pro-gun country, according to Gallup. Scholars like Ms. Carlson contend that majority is part of a new, emergent social contract in which the balance of power and social responsibility has slipped noticeably toward the citizen, who increasingly feels a need to back up his or her First Amendment right to free speech with its menacing guarantor, the gun.

Though the NRA's power, even before Newtown, was sinking, American gun culture remains ascendant, with 74 percent of Americans – the highest percentage ever recorded – opposed to banning handguns, and 51 percent supportive of allowing assault-style weapons, according to a recent poll by the libertarian Reason Foundation.

The gun as icon of freedom

And folks don't just want their guns for self-defense. In early February, Pew noted that 53 percent of Americans say the federal government poses a threat to personal rights and freedoms – a nod in part, experts say, to the post-Newtown gun-control push and fears that Democrats are laying a covert path to gun confiscation.

That dynamic of "tying guns to the identity of the country sort of becomes a way to avoid debating who we are and what we will do as a society, and how we will deal with certain kinds of problems," says Carole Emberton, a historian at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

Nevertheless, as 44 percent of American households now stash firearms, the stereotype of gun owners as camo-wearing rednecks in pickup trucks is being challenged in new ways, especially given the 8 million Americans – many of them women – carrying concealed weapons, and the gun-rights groups emerging with names like The Liberal Gun Club and the Black Man With a Gun blog.

Race complicates the debate, starting with research showing that the Madisonian roots of the Second Amendment sprang from racial fears, or at least from fears of slave revolts. It's a small historical leap from there to gun-purchasing inspired by fear of crime in black urban cores, and on to the first White House push for gun control in two decades being led by the first black president.

Moreover, many other Americans sense in this gun-carrying paradigm a self-fulfilling dystopia not so subtly responsible for a pattern of, on average, one mass shooting involving four or more victims a month since 2009, according to the gun-control group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

That's partly why some of the divides around guns are so absolute. For example, according to a poll by the Reason Foundation, 68 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of independents say assault weapons should not be banned, a view shared by only 33 percent of Democrats.

And according to exit polling in the 2008 election, 58 percent of suburban Republicans claimed gun ownership versus 27 percent of Democrats. That, in the words of New York Times statistician Nate Silver, means that "whether someone owns a gun is a more powerful predictor of a person's political party" than gender, race, geographical location, and most other demographic characteristics.

Yet other polls find vast common ground on gun control among those demographic divides. Last year, a poll by GOP pollster Frank Luntz found that 74 percent of NRA members supported more comprehensive background checks for gun purchasers – a reform that University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says is the most likely to become law.

After what happened in Newtown, Melvin Clark Jr., a National Guard veteran and gun instructor in Boston, finds himself slipping a bit into that divide. An NRA member, he still turns to the Constitution as his ultimate guide.

"A lot of people make the argument that our Framers ... could not have imagined the advancements in firearms, and I agree. They were brilliant, but they could not see the future," says Mr. Clark. "But if you were to ask them if Americans should be armed as well as any British soldier, what might they say?"

As strongly supportive of the Second Amendment as he is, Clark concedes he does not toe the NRA line completely: He'd like to see Washington take registration and licensing over from the states, if only to make gun laws more uniform and easier to enforce.

Clark's pragmatism explains a key paradox of today's gun debate: If Americans are so darn divided on the gun issue, then why did the New England Journal of Medicine just conclude from a large post-Newtown survey that "We found smaller differences than we anticipated between gun-owners and non–gun-owners."

Morris Fiorina, a Stanford University political scientist and author of "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America," takes a stab at an explanation.

"I was sitting next to a woman who was talking about an argument about guns she'd been having with her husband, who was born in Utah," says Mr. Fiorina. When the woman said that she, not her American-West-born husband, was the one who feels she has a right to defend herself with a gun, says Fiorina, "I was speechless. I wouldn't have seen those attitudes a few years ago. Part of it is I think this sense that authorities can't protect you, but there's also a broader sense that it's not just about hunting and the Second Amendment, but really personal defense and personal autonomy."

Misunderstood majority?

To be sure, the Democratic Party of today includes fewer Southerners and fewer conservatives, and, consequently, contains fewer traditional gun-owning demographics, says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H. Yet, he adds, "There is this kind of suburban gun owner who isn't part of the traditional gun-culture demographic, but it's hard to nail how that group breaks down."

There are hints of what could be called a misunderstood gun-rights majority. The Pew survey on personal rights and freedoms found that the share of Americans who feel "threatened" by the government has gone from 38 percent in 1995 to 53 percent today; and that a hefty 44 percent of non-gun-owning Americans share concerns about Washington growing tyrannical as the economy threatens to lock into slow, European-style growth.

The Obama administration doesn't have to look that deep to justify pushing ahead with a battery of gun-control proposals, as well as 23 executive orders strengthening US gun safety.

Democrats "feel that there's little to lose by pushing this issue right now," says Adam Winkler, author of "Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America." "The Democratic Party has become less dependent on white swing-state voters who love guns ... and [party members] realize that they can win swing states by appealing to their core constituencies rather than appealing to Republicans."

At the same time, Mr. Winkler adds, Americans "still love their firearms, and it's going to take a lot more than the Newtown shooting to end that."

Bendable on controls but not on Obama

To that end, the White House has been particularly careful, in light of these realities, of how to frame the debate. Yes, one survey showed the biggest political winner of 2012 was the embattled Planned Parenthood organization, while the avowed electoral power loser was the NRA. But the White House is really contending with broader sympathies, in part because Obama himself has emerged as a particular lightning rod on the gun issue.

"It's your guns," Obama said at a campaign stop in 2008. "We're not going to mess with them, all right? I hope I made that clear. Is everybody clear back there in the back? Because I see a couple sportsmen back there. All right? Spread the word with your friends. I'm not going to take away your guns."

There was skeptical quiet.

Obama's election and reelection both spawned frantic runs on guns and ammunition, causing the American Thinker blog to declare Obama the "best gun salesman in history." The president's post-Newtown gun-control push again sparked fear and political backlash that seeped into the debate.

Strong majorities of Republicans, for example, told a Washington Post/ABC News poll in January that they support the major tenets of proposed reforms – gun show background checks (89 percent), background checks to purchase ammunition (69 percent), bans on high-capacity magazines (59 percent) – yet a whopping 72 percent of Republicans oppose Obama's push, which proposes the same changes.

"There is this sense that America is locking and loading because of Obama being elected ... and threats Obama may or may not pose," says Carlson, at the University of Toronto. "That may be true, but this transformation where Americans are turning to guns started in the 1970s, and as quickly as these shootings happen, gun culture has not transformed so quickly."

Bekalyn Craig, stay-at-home mother of two preschoolers, grew up in a rabidly anti-gun household, and she now lives in a house where, she says, "there are more guns than people." The Craigs' bedroom is their makeshift armory. Her husband, Paul Craig, a home automation installer, grew up around older brothers who let him use their can-plinking .22 rifle. As an adult he embraced rifles and handguns for self-protection

Not usually one for social movements or protest, he came out to the Guns Across America rally in Atlanta holding several signs, with his family in tow, largely because he felt "like we're at a precipice." He worries about the slippery slope and doesn't trust Obama, whom he calls "a snake in the grass."

To him, First and Second Amendment rights are inextricably linked, forming the core duality of citizenship. "If a guy's holding a gun, you tend to let him say his piece," he says.

But even this family is unsure about whether America's gun regulations are effective enough to stop violence. Ms. Craig's own family experience with mental illness gives her pause, especially after the Newtown massacre, which was perpetrated by a mentally unstable 20-year-old.

Mr. Craig also supports banning certain types of large-caliber weapons that have no practical civilian purposes. "Do people need a .50 caliber [a massive, legal caliber] in the back bedroom?" he wonders. "I'm not sure about that."

Pro-gun but unafraid of controls

Outside the Lawrenceville Gun Show on a chilly north Georgia morning, the record lines to get in underscore what Parker Russell calls "a great national freakout" about gun control – that Americans better get those high-capacity magazines and pistol grip semiautomatics now, before they're outlawed.

Inside, Americans, Koreans, Russians, and Pakistanis conduct a brisk arms bazaar. On display are a pacifist's nightmare: signs that say "Cash only, no paperwork, private sale" – the famous "gun show loophole" – and tiny $49 trigger devices (sold with "certificates of legality") that can turn a friendly semiautomatic rifle into a savage bullet-sprayer.

The 20-something Mr. Russell is standing next to his diminutive Smart Car, which in turn is parked next to a massive black pickup truck dubbed "Zombie Hunter 001." Essentially conservative, Russell was raised with guns around the house, and now owns a pistol and a rifle; he came to the gun show looking for another light shooter. His girlfriend grew up in a strict anti-gun house, and she just purchased her first firearm.

He does not share in the frenzied concern over Washington's plans for gun control, in part because he believes there could be improvements in gun regulations that would not affect basic Second Amendment rights – such as shoring up gun show background checks.

Yes, he says, Obama could lead a Constitutional Convention to repeal the Second Amendment. But, beyond that, the idea of a major firearms crackdown in America – including an all-out ban of guns like Brinley's AR-15 – is just too out of the mainstream.

And if he's wrong?

"It all goes in cycles," Russell says. "If this guy taketh guns away, the next guy will give them back."

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