Once again, a mass shooting has catapulted America’s irresponsibly lax gun laws into the center of public debate – but there may be less disagreement than the right-wing would have you believe. Jeremy Bird, a former Obama campaign consultant and now a Chicago-based senior adviser to Battleground Texas, said in an Oct. 2, 2015 tweet: “90% of Americans want national background checks that close loopholes. 9-0. Won’t solve whole problem but is a start.” Bird posted his comment on the day of the Umpqua Community College massacre last week, and yesterday, Politifact Texas in partnership with the Austin American-Statesman said “We rate the claim True – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.”
So the natural question to ask: If 90% of Americans want national background checks that close gun purchase loopholes, why hasn’t Congress passed such legislation? The truth is that the American public suffers from cognitive dissonance (torn between two inconsistent beliefs) on the issue of guns. While Politifact cites poll after poll since 2012 showing public support ranging from 85% to 93% favoring background checks including support from 74% of National Rifle Association’s (NRA) members, the American public “continues to be more evenly divided in fundamental attitudes about whether it is more important to control gun ownership or to protect the right of Americans to own guns. Currently, 50% say it is more important to control gun ownership, while 47% say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns.”
The NRA is among the most powerful lobbies in Washington. Its membership is said be around 4.5 million, but they are among the most proactive and politically motivated constituencies – because their gun ownership is intimately tied to their personal identity. Politicians either agree with the NRA vision or they live in fear. Either way, the organization is very effective at recruiting political support and convincing the public that any challenge to gun ownership is an assault on their freedoms and the Second Amendment. The NRA constantly makes the unsubstantiated claim that “Carrying a gun for self-defense makes you safer.” Or: “If only more ordinary citizens were armed, they could stop mass shootings.” In fact they claim that gun free school zones send a signal to insane killers: “Politicians pass laws for gun free school zones, they issue press releases bragging about them. They post signs advertising them. And, in doing so, they tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk…The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
The NRA’s 225-page response to Sandy Hook: “Teachers should teach, but if there is personnel that has interest and is willing to go through 40 to 60 hours of [firearms] training, then schools should be willing to arm them.” That is equivalent to asking teachers to not only teach, but in an emergency, to become SWAT officers. And to also overcome the enormous stress and fear that might confront a teacher in a conflict after 40 to 60 hours – training that law enforcement professionals constantly undergo over an entire career. So the NRA’s answer to stopping horrific school shootings has been to try and convince the public that arming school teachers is the answer.
However, Mother Jones reported after the Sandy Hook tragedy in an in-depth investigation, “not one of 62 mass shootings in the United States over the last 30 years has been stopped this way.” Additionally, Harvard researcher David Hemenway, who is most notably responsible for the Harvard Study that found 97% of climate scientists agree on Global Warming, using the same exhaustive study techniques, said of the NRA claim; “If only more ordinary citizens were armed, they could stop mass shootings…these arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny.”
Obviously there is a difference between requiring background checks before guns can be purchased and – as much as we would like to – restricting the purchase of certain types of guns and/or high-volume magazine clips. But, simple national background checks, before a gun is purchased can help to keep guns out of the hands of those who should not be allowed to own a them. Nobody seems to have a complaint about registering automobiles, but the NRA sees a slippery slope in allowing any kind of gun legislation at all. It continues to use all its considerable financial and political muscle to obstruct along with continuing to perpetrate the false narrative ‘that more guns in the hands of more people will prevent tragedy.’ Simply put, the NRA will consistently obstruct the adoption of any regulation – no matter how reasonable a process like a background check may seem.
However, as Politifact wrote: “Polls continue to show a strong tilt in favor of background checks prior to all gun purchases; the latest available poll before Bird spoke found 93 percent of adults in favor.” Ninety-three percent is reflective of strong bipartisan support for national background checks prior to allowing a gun to be purchased. And since 74% of NRA members also support background checks, the NRA does not speak for all its members. Gun laws need to change if we are to stop the daily slaughter of innocents in our streets and this consistency in polls reflects the public cry for background checks. It is the first vital step forward in resolving the ‘dissonance’. Implementing background checks would be a step forward against the proliferation of guns in this country – especially by those that should not have them. So it’s up to ‘us’, individually and collectively as voters regardless of our political persuasion, to let our politicians running for office know background checks are one of those deal-breaker issues, ‘either you are for it, or you won’t get my vote.’
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.