The mass shooting in Las Vegas, like similar ones before it, has led to an inevitable rise in calls for more restrictive gun laws. Yet even as gun control advocates hope for modest changes in the law, such as a ban on devices that convert rifles into automatic weapons, many admit this latest debate could go nowhere, swallowed up again by a deep cultural chasm between Americans.
The politics over guns does indeed reflect a divide over other issues, such as personal rights, rural versus urban, and the relationship between individuals and their government. Each side relies on logic, studies, slogans, court rulings, and lobbies in trying to influence lawmakers. While a few gun-restricting laws have been passed in recent decades – and some loosened – the politics seems as entrenched as ever.
Breaking this impasse does not need more political armament over the proper ownership of personal arms. It instead requires a new understanding about underlying fears, especially shared ones. Both sides share a common fear of being harmed by violence. They just differ on what is the most probable source of violence.
Gun control advocates often cite mass shootings, including those by gang members, as the main reason for new laws. (Gun deaths by suicide or accidents are also cited.) Many gun owners, especially women, agree. But how much is really known about the fears of the majority of gun owners?
A poll, conducted last spring by the Pew Research Center, may help clarify those fears, and perhaps create some empathy for that side.
Two-thirds of gun owners say they possess a gun for personal protection, the poll finds. They do not want to be defenseless, either against a criminal or possibly their own government. More than half of gun owners say there would be less crime if more people owned guns. In fact, 43 percent of men who own guns and 29 percent of female gun owners say they keep a loaded gun at the ready.
And to show how deep such feelings go, nearly three-quarters say they could not ever see themselves not owning a gun.
And for many, the threats seem very real. About 14 percent of gun owners have fired or threatened to fire a gun to defend themselves, their family, or their possessions.
But the best insight may be that 41 percent of people who own a handgun say their local community is unsafe. Until gun control advocates can speak to these fears – at the local level and one-on-one – the national debate may remain in a stalemate.
The starting point for discussion must be that both sides want to end gun violence. This is the common ground of hope that can then open the door for compromise on the difficult issues of guns. The mutual desire for safe communities is the bonding agent, one based on shared affection for wider society. Tragedies like the Vegas shooting bring out hard emotions. But it is the quieter, softer, and more universal ones that can save lives.