Thanks to recent shootings, public support for regulating guns is growing stronger. The firearms industry and the National Rifle Association would do well to learn the lessons of comic books, which faced a similar dilemma in the 1950s. It’s a much better model than the makers of cigarettes, which refused to compromise and now find themselves an endangered species.
When the assault weapons ban lapsed after a relatively quiet decade, the gun industry and the NRA were tall in the saddle. Twelve years later, after scores of shootings, firearms manufacturers and gun owner groups are now facing a public far more willing to regulate the instruments used in these killings.
Of the killings of more than 13 people in deadly mass shootings, only one occurred during the assault weapons ban, according to the Los Angeles Times (Columbine High School in 1999). Three occurred in the decade before the ban (San Ysidro, California in 1984; Edmond, Oklahoma in 1986; and Killeen, Texas in 1991). Eight have happened in the 15 years since then (Virginia Tech in 2007; Binghamton, New York, in 2009; Ft. Hood, Texas, in 2009; Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012; San Bernardino, California, in 2015; Orlando, Florida in 2016; and shootings in Las Vegas and in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017).
With four of these just within in the last three years, it’s harder to tell that these are isolated incidents, or claim that this era of deregulation of assault weapons is working. The policy of watering down earlier gun laws, or refusing to pass new regulations to address the threats, hasn’t succeeded. The failure to cover new concerns, like “ghost guns” used to conduct the latest California shooting near and at a school, is making the problem worse. And the public is increasingly willing to demand action.
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Back in 2015, Quinnipiac University’s poll found that only 45 percent of people wanted stricter gun laws. Today, the number who support stronger gun laws is 60 percent, with only 36 percent opposing such plans. That’s a big change in a short period of time, but the steady onslaught of shootings seems to be playing a role.
Individual policies are also seeing an increase in support, in this Quinnipiac survey. Nearly everyone (95%) wants background checks on all gun purchases. Now, nearly two-thirds of Americans want that assault weapons ban back, whereas half agreed a few years ago.
But gun companies and gun groups like the NRA have refused to budge an inch, standing firm against a wave of public opinion. And they risk heading down a similar path as another group also once thought untouchable: Big Tobacco.
The cigarette industry and smokers used to think they too were unassailable. Unfazed by warnings by the Surgeon General or the CDC, the industry strongly resisted a policy of restraint or even reform. They felt so comfortable that they could target their product to the youths with the Joe Camel series. The industry was pretty tone deaf to public opinion as well.
Many dismissed the government’s bid to regulate cigarettes as unable to overcome such a powerful lobby. But as evidence mounted that the industry was hiding its most dangerous health and addiction findings, the public turned on smoking, once seen as an iconic part of Americana. Now the unthinkable has happened, as smoking isn’t even allowed in public places and bars. Nine in ten Americans support such moves to regulate tobacco as a threat as well.
Could compromise have kept the tobacco lobby from being crushed like a used cigarette? One group, facing extinction, chose that policy of self-regulation, and has thrived ever since.
It’s hard to believe it, but in the mid-1950s, comic books were nearly banned from the country, thanks to the work of Fred Wertham, who tried to convince Americans that comic books induced crime. His theory was weak, but that didn’t stop him from getting prime time coverage, and even congressional hearings, and power to turn public opinion against American superheroes (70 percent blamed comic books for teenage violence in a Gallup poll from 1954).
Like tobacco, the comic book companies didn’t take him seriously until it was almost too late. Facing the prospect of having their products banned, comic book makers self-regulated, giving in to demands by those who wanted only good superheroes always winning, law enforcement always being heroes, and criminals always being unsympathetic characters who always lose.
Clearly compromise and self-regulation saved one industry, while failure to do the same cost another group dearly. But what can gun manufacturers and the NRA do?
Banning assault weapons did reduce, but not eliminate, mass shootings. Evidence also shows that regulating all private sales does not reduce crime in states, as criminals and would-be shooters simply buy their firearms from other states, or such checks are unevenly enforced, especially for domestic abusers.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the Republican leadership, may have a better solution. He is introducing a measure that mandates a national government database to ban criminals convicted of certain felonies from owning a gun. These should include crimes apt to produce mass shooters. And maybe we’ll finally make guns harder for terrorists to get. Losing gun ownership rights might provide an additional deterrent to crime.
The NRA, gun makers and the GOP need to embrace this drive. Just two years ago, all three were battling against measures to prevent even accused terrorists on the “no-fly list” from owning a gun in the wake of the Orlando shooting.
Failure to support reform could cost gun manufacturers, gun owners, and even the GOP their position of power, as such inflexible myopia once humbled Big Tobacco.
John A. Tures is associate professor of political science at LaGrange College; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JohnTures2.