Gun debate muzzles the middle ground

The NRA and Brady Campaign are locked in an antagonistic embrace that creates gridlock on solving the nation's gun problems.

Two years ago, Florida enacted a law that allows anyone who feels threatened anywhere to use deadly force. Today the National Rifle Association (NRA) is shepherding similar laws through legislatures across the country.

The so-called Castle Doctrine extended the notion of a man's home being his castle to public streets being his castle. When the law first went into effect in October 2005, the nation's most prominent gun-control group, the Brady Campaign, decided to fight back. Sort of.

The Brady Campaign – understaffed, underfunded, and generally floundering – missed the news of the law's consideration until it was almost a done deal. In behavior typical for both sides in a war of words, the gun-control group's inability to keep the legislation from passing did not stop the group from using the occasion to ratchet up the rhetoric.

The Brady Campaign put up a billboard in Miami that October, took out ads in cold climates where people often take Florida vacations, and handed out fliers at Florida airports – all warning tourists of their possible demise on their trips to Florida beaches and Disney World.

The campaign got the biggest reaction in Britain and Canada, where it fit perfectly into the notion of Americans as barbarians. A headline in the British Birmingham Post read, "Going to Florida? Beware the gun-happy locals."

Although Florida officials were unhappy about a potential blow to tourism, the bigger upset was that the Brady Campaign's move played right into the NRA's hands.

The dirty secret of both sides in the gun debate is that, without a powerful enemy, they cannot woo supporters or raise money. They are like boxers in a ring – propping each other up even as they try to get in blows. They are locked in an antagonistic embrace that creates gridlock on solving the nation's gun problems.

Of course, it is not an embrace of equals. The NRA has a $200 million annual budget, while the Brady Campaign's is $8 million. Since 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, gun rights groups have given $18.7 billion to political candidates, while gun control groups have given only $1.7 billion.

In fact, no one knows whether shootings have increased in Florida as a result of the Castle Doctrine because the Brady Campaign and other interested groups cannot afford to have lawyers track the results.

Paradoxically, the NRA's Goliath status forces the group to work harder to make people believe that it has potent enemies – a challenge to which it has risen. The cover of one issue of America's 1st Freedom, one of the NRA's several magazines, threatened that the United Nations will seize Americans' guns, an idea that is laughably implausible. The NRA also exaggerates the impact of other stock enemies, including the Brady Campaign itself, the French, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is trying single-handedly to curb the flow of illegal guns into his city.

After hurricane Katrina, officials tried to ban guns from the streets of New Orleans and from temporary housing for refugees. The NRA halted the efforts in federal court. Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's chief executive officer, painted the attempts to check violence as proof that the US government would take away its citizens' guns.

"To stop such civil disarmament – the greatest threat of all – will require massive NRA member pressure at every level of government," Mr. LaPierre wrote in his monthly letter to NRA members. "In these upcoming battles, our battle cry must be REMEMBER NEW ORLEANS! Never, ever forget."

Certainly, most Americans would say that the shootings at Virginia Tech should never, ever be forgotten either. But somehow, though school shootings continue, though an average of 32 homicides are committed with guns in the United States each day, though dozens of suspected terrorists are known to have passed background checks to legally purchase guns, the gun-control side cannot gain traction.

Instead the bluster and bickering continue. The warring lobbying groups call each other "gun grabbers," "enemies of freedom," and "gun zealots."

"The two sides in this debate behave like spoiled children who won't sit at the table together and play nice," admits Peter Hamm, the spokesman for the Brady Campaign.

What the two sides don't acknowledge is that reasonable people can oppose civilian ownership of machine guns or .50-caliber rifles so powerful they must be shot using a tripod while still supporting hunting and owning guns for self-defense. Americans can support background checks on guns sold everywhere – not just by licensed dealers – without putting gun companies out of business. The United States can require registration of guns and proficiency tests for gun owners, just as we do with cars, without making it impossible, or even difficult, for law-abiding citizens to buy guns.

The name-calling and breath-holding have made us all forget that a middle ground is possible.

Rachel Graves is working on "The Gun Follies," a book about the politics of guns.

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