I have been a student of the U.S. gun debate for more than two decades, having published four reference works on the topic. Quite often in the wake of a mass shooting, such as the one just suffered at the Capital Gazette building in Annapolis, a friend or colleague will ask me: "What can I do?" By that they mean what can they do to reduce gun violence, and they usually assume that this can be accomplished, as least in part, by the enacting of stronger national gun laws.
Gun rights proponents point to our generally falling rates of gun violence in the past quarter century to justify the view that stronger gun control is unwarranted. Indeed, this has been a period during which most states have adopted strong gun rights legislation, e.g., liberalizing concealed-carry and creating laws of preemption that prevent cities and towns from enacting any gun restrictions stronger than state law. On the other side, gun control proponents emphasize the consistently high number of gun-related deaths — 30,000 to 33,000 — year in and year out (from suicides, homicides and accidents); these proponents also emphasize the rise in active-shooter, mass-shooting tragedies.
Serious students of the debate realize that over the long run the data used by one side are ignored by the other side. Gun control proponents don't want to hear about “success” in reducing gun violence — indeed, they would feel comfortable in paraphrasing famous civil rights activist Malcolm X’s contention that "if you stick a knife in my back 9 inches and pull it out 6 inches, that’s not [really] progress.” Gun rights proponents observe that traffic accidents create more deaths than guns, but no one talks about taking cars off the road.
Ultimately, the debate is over values and world views. Importantly, there is no compromise to be found here.
So, here's my advice to cut through the Gordian Knot that the complexity of the gun debate presents us, and it’s based on the historical evidence of the political situation when strong federal control legislation has been enacted (1934, 1938, 1968, 1993 and 1994): Vote Democratic for federal offices (at the local level, political party is much less important, so there vote for whomever you think will represents you best; but at the federal level, you need to vote Democratic). Though not a sufficient condition (e.g., see 2009-2011, when the Democrats used all of their political will and capital to pass health care legislation), a necessary condition for serious federal gun control legislation is the presidency, the Senate, and the House all being held by Democrats.
Marching (e.g., March for Our Lives; the Million Mom March) is good. Calling and emailing your congressional representatives is good. Letting Dick’s, Walmart and other businesses championing some form of gun control hear from you is good too. Supporting political savvy and increasingly effective national organizations promoting stronger gun laws is money well spent (especially when directed to Everytown for Gun Safety, the Brady Campaign and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence).
But the most important and serious action you can take, if you really want serious federal gun control successfully legislated, is to vote Democratic in 2018 and 2020.
Serious gun control includes dozens of measures, but at minimum it embraces those that the majority of the voting public currently supports: universal background checks (or even better, requiring a purchase permit in which a potential gun-buyer has been vetted by local law enforcement); regulating Internet sales of firearms such that transactions between anonymous buyers and sellers are thwarted; creating a federal gun-sale registration database; strong requirements for the safe storage of guns kept at home or at work; and resurrecting the federal assault weapons ban, which included restrictions on the size of ammunition magazines. But none of these regulations will unfold if the Republican Party controls even one house of Congress, let alone the presidency and both houses as it now does.
Of course, the obverse is also true: If “gun rights” is a paramount issue to you, and if you believe that any new gun control legislation would compromise these rights, then you need to vote Republican and donate to the NRA. Again, there is no compromise to be found in the gun debate — at least not yet.
Gregg Lee Carter (http://web.bryant.edu/~gcarter/ ) is a professor of sociology at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I.; his most recent book on the gun debate is “Gun Control in the United States: A Reference Handbook” (ABC-CLIO, 2017). He is a gun owner and grew up as a hunter and target-shooter in the strong gun culture of the mountain states of Montana and Nevada.