The long-term cultural, political, and legal trends in the United States aren’t that great for the gun control movement. Last year we saw a record-high number of firearms sold, many to new gun owners, and it looks like we’re on pace to make 2021 the second-busiest year for gun stores and firearms manufacturers. We’re seeing gun owners and Second Amendment groups pop up across the political spectrum, and as the diversity of gun owners continues to grow it’s opening up new opportunities and new arguments against infringing on the right to keep and bear arms. With the Supreme Court set to issue a major decision on the right to bear arms next year, some gun control activists like UCLA law professor Adam Winkler are urging the gun control lobby to chart a new couse; one based more on “community violence interventions” instead of trying to ban and arrest our way to safety.
Then there’s Winkler’s fellow Californian Dr. Garen Wintemute. The longtime gun control activist and head of the supposedly non-partisan (and state funded) Violence Prevention Research Program at UC-Davis isn’t sanguine about the likely defeats for Team Gun Ban in the months ahead, and in a new paper in the journal Injury Epidemiology Wintemute warns of a pending political apocalypse because of all those darn gun owners out there.
Now, recently enacted policies and others still being debated are poised to increase both the likelihood and lethality of political violence. A wave of voter suppression legislation reminiscent of Jim Crow is sweeping conservative states. As of October, 19 states had enacted 33 laws restricting access to voting (Brennan Center for Justice 2021). Echoing President Biden, who called such legislation an “assault on democracy” (Biden 2021), nearly 200 experts concluded that “our entire democracy is now at risk” (Statement of concern 2021).
Many of those states and others are simultaneously loosening restrictions on firearms. Some are enacting laws allowing the carrying of firearms in public without a permit, which are in effect in at least 20 states (Thrush and Bogel-Burroughs 2021). At least 9 states have acted to interfere with the enforcement of federal gun statutes (Thrush and Bogel-Burroughs 2021).
Let me see if I have this right. The same states that are imposing “voter suppression legislation reminiscent of Jim Crow” are also making it easier for citizens of every race, color, and creed to keep and bear arms, because that’s how racism works. It seems to me that if suppressing the rights of minorities were so important to these conservatives, they’d be adopting California-style “may issue” carry laws instead, or maybe a “pistol purchase permit” law like the one that Republicans unsucessfully tried to repeal in North Carolina this year. Despite evidence showing that Black applicants were nearly three times as likely as Whites to be denied a permission slip to purchase a handgun in the state, Democrats and gun control activists rallied to keep the Jim Crow-era gun law in place.
I don’t disagree with Wintemute’s assertion that we live in a time of growing political conflict, but I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to portray that deepening divide as only the fault of the Right. We just witnessed elections that would seem to indicate an awful lot of Americans have some big problems with how Democrats want to govern (maybe “rule” would be a better word to use), but Wintemute would rather play “Pin the Blame on the Elephant” than take a sober look at how, say, demands by the president to ban and collect tens of millions of legally-purchased firearms might also lead to increased political polarization.
The most bizarre aspect to Wintemute’s screed, however, is the conclusion that he reaches. After warning of the “real prospect of large-scale political violence” in the coming months (violence he sees coming exclusively from the Right), the gun control activist suddenly pivots to a utopian solution.
The Biden administration is proposing to spend $5 billion over 8 years to support evidence-based community violence prevention programs and billions more for workforce development in underserved communities (The White House 2021a). The first-listed priority of the Department of Justice’s violent crime reduction program is to “build trust and earn legitimacy” (Department of Justice 2021), which are at very low levels (Page and Lee 2021). A new $100 million initiative targets domestic violent extremism, including its causes and accelerators (The White House 2021b). The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is poised to undertake a rigorous, data-based approach to interrupting the supply of firearms for criminal use. If adopted, these large-scale initiatives could provide the opportunity for fundamental change to a comprehensive approach to violence that is not executed primarily by people with guns.
As of late October 2021, however, it is by no means certain that these important initiatives will come to pass. Even if they do, government—especially good government—can only do so much. Recapturing the future of the USA is our responsibility, yours and mine, individually and together.
Under similar circumstances a century ago, Irish poet William Butler Yeats observed in “The Second Coming” that “things fall apart; the center cannot hold; /… The best lack all conviction, while the worst/are full of passionate intensity.” For things not to fall apart this time, we must act on our conviction that the structures that engender and perpetuate violence were built purposefully and must be taken down just as purposefully.
What structures would those be? Wintemute mentions a few; education; income, housing and job security; law enforcement and criminal justice policies and practices; and access to medical and mental health care.
So basically, unless we tear down our existing institutions with the promise of “building back better” on the ashes of what came before, Wintemute says the nation is doomed. Personally, I don’t think the forecast is as gloomy as Wintemute predicts, at least not for the U.S as a whole. When it comes to the future of the gun control movement, on the other hand, I can understand why Wintemute is so pessimistic.