In the 1970s and 1980s, two prominent advocacy groups in the gun control movement were called Handgun Control and the National Coalition to Ban Handguns. Today, these groups are still major voices on the issue, but their names—as well as those of every other major organization involved in the issue—don’t anymore refer to banning or controlling guns. They are the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Other groups include Everytown for Gun Safety and Americans for Responsible Solutions.
All of these names are euphemistic and broad. In them, the gun—the instrument of murder in the deaths of at least 49 innocent victims in Orlando this weekend and in the murders of 12,000 people every year the U.S. (as well as more than 20,000 suicides and more than 80,000 nonfatal accidents annually)—just needs to be used more safely and responsibly. There is no whiff of significantly restricting gun ownership. A specific model of semiautomatic rifle used in the recent mass shooting, maybe. Expanded background checks, sure. But banning gun ownership entirely? Not anymore.
But why? Why is it taboo to suggest making it much, much more difficult for citizens—yes, even law-abiding citizens—to own, operate, or carry guns, as Australia did after 35 people died in the 1996 Port Arthur massacre? After that tragedy, Australia’s conservative government quickly passed strict gun control, banning automatic and semiautomatic rifles and creating tough licensing rules, and later also tightening handgun rules.
It’s true that the courts have posed high barriers to gun regulation in the U.S., so the real question is why isn’t anyone organizing a grassroots movement of people to repeal or revise the Second Amendment or protesting against the Supreme Court’s broad interpretation of it? As society evolved its views on slavery and women’s voting rights, movements managed to enact Constitutional amendments. And activists in other areas are usually not shy about calling out bad Supreme Court decisions, like the Citizen's United decision. But with guns, no one is even trying—even though it's unlikely the founding fathers ever imagined automatic assault weapons.
"The movement has really become more moderate—and some might even say conservative—in terms of policy asks," says Ladd Everitt, director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. "We don’t have the full range of advocacy and the full range of voices, and we are also maybe alienating the people who support stronger action."
Today’s gun control movement is eminently reasonable, unimpeachably practical, and policy-oriented. It puts its energies toward policies like closing loopholes so that we have universal background checks for gun buyers, something 90% of the American public supports. Some see this as the movement "getting smarter" and that is likely true, especially in today’s political climate. But even after 20 children were murdered at Sandy Hook, laws requiring expanded background checks remained impossible to pass through Congress because of the NRA’s staunch opposition, which argued that a flawed, underfunded system of background checks shouldn’t be improved and also that it would be a "slippery slope" to gun confiscation—both clearly false.
It’s worth noting how different this situation is from most major social movements, which include a broader spectrum of views and strategies. In the '60s and '70s, radical feminists fighting to topple the patriarchy made the more moderate wing of the women’s movement seeking to end workplace discrimination seem reasonable. It was the same with Black Power activists and Martin Luther King Jr. In the environmental movement, there are groups that will never compromise with polluters, and there are those who work hand in hand with them, seeking incremental improvements.
In these examples, the most radical positions might have less chance at becoming a practical reality on their own, but they can help to make the compromises advocated by moderates possible. In social movement theory, this is sometimes called the "radical flank effect." In political theory, a similar idea is the Overton window, which describes the range of ideas that public opinion supports—or that a politician can propose that won’t get them kicked out of office.
In this way, the lack of any more extreme organized viewpoint could also be viewed as a failing of today’s gun control movement. "We are not pushing the middle, and when the middle gets pushed we end up right of center," Ladd says.
It does work this way on the other side of the gun debate, where far-right-wing voices, such as the Gun Owners of America, make even the NRA seem level-headed by comparison. Ideologically "pure" gun rights groups aren’t happy with the NRA’s support of mainstream candidates, even Democrats like Senator Harry Reid, or its history of very limited compromises, such as supporting expanding screenings in 2008. These more radical groups may only speak to a very limited base of supporters, but they can help move the middle ground closer to them.
The reason gun control advocacy isn’t this way has to do with the history of the movement and the power of the NRA. In the ‘70s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s, gun control advocates did consistently challenge the Second Amendment’s protections of anyone’s right to own a gun and wanted all U.S. gun owners in a licensed database. But most people in the movement feel this bold approach backfired and played into the NRA’s messaging, as the NRA itself slowly became more entrenched in its approach opposing all new gun regulations today (there was a time in the 1960s and earlier when it actually supported gun control). Today it incites its grassroots base by twisting any hint of reasonable gun regulation into "the government is coming for your guns."
The NRA, of course, has wielded outsized power for decades, shaping the gun debate on its terms. It has done this by spending millions of dollars each election cycle on political donations and lobbying, and by working to defeat candidates who oppose it. It has been effective at mobilizing its members to cast votes based on this one issue, though in the last few years, NRA opponents have made an effort to expose the corporate gun industry interests that wield most influence inside the organization, questioning the true extent of its grassroots membership.
Still, it is a mountainous task to untangle gun ownership from America’s broader culture wars or make it possible for any politician to talk about stronger actions (even Sen. Bernie Sanders, the most progressive in the presidential race, supports guns). Paul Heroux, a Democratic state representative from Massachusetts, has written a number of essays on gun policy. He opposes "top-down gun laws" but once proposed a thought experiment: "What if the Second Amendment were repealed?" The response he got was unsurprising to anyone who ever glances at Internet comment sections: "They were essentially saying 'civil war, civil war—you’re never going to take my guns away.' If you crackdown on guns per se, as the villain, by reflex, you’re going to get people pushing back."
A few years after former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011, she and her husband launched Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group specifically aimed at appealing to gun owners who are in favor of sensible regulations. Pia Carusone, a senior advisor to the group, notes that in Congress there is an "urban myth" that the now-expired 1994 assault weapons ban was the key factor to Democrats being voted out of Congress that year. (In truth, there were actually many other reasons, like taxes and health care reform.) Politicians around that time became deeply leery of provoking the NRA.
But would it be helpful to the broader cause if some activist groups were not afraid of taking a stronger position on guns, even at risk of turning off moderates? "I really don’t know," says Carusone. "I know that some of those extreme calls would definitely alienate some people. It’s really hard to say what would eventually come from something like that."
Today, advocacy groups have internalized this, aiming for what is achievable and carefully avoiding alienating moderate Americans and law-abiding gun owners. Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, says any talk of banning handguns is a "nonstarter," and she believes a movement to change the Constitution would be a waste of energy and resources.
"It’s not going to go anywhere, so yes, I do think it’s a waste," she says. Her organization is focusing on issues like safe firearm storage requirements and micro-stamping guns to help police solve crimes. She says a push for licensing and registration for all guns would be an example of a more extreme policy worth supporting.
These are all incredibly important strategies and policy aims. But the gun control movement suffers from a "passion gap," says Ladd. Except in the immediate aftermath of mass shootings, people support gun regulations but don’t muster up the energy to match gun rights activists over the long-term. Many organizations today are trying to cultivate a more grassroots base and focus on passing state-level policies where Congress fails to act. But even something like the 1994 assault weapons ban, which was considered a flawed bill full of exceptions, seems out of reach today, Carusone says. In some states, gun policies are getting even more lax, especially on issues like concealed carry of weapons.
The gun control movement recognizes that more grassroots energy is needed. Even at its peak, it never had the energy from voters in the same way as other social issues, such as the pro-choice movement. "It needs to be something that people are talking about it, not a foregone conclusion," says Carusone.
Ladd says there’s been "water cooler talk" about the need for a more radical branch that excites the public to its cause, but that this position is still vacant. "I think it’s a debate we need to have. Somebody needs to be in that space—who it's going to be is unclear at this point. I know it’s been discussed before, but I think after this weekend, we’ll see it become more urgent."
Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it's interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.