Following two of the deadliest shootings in U.S. history — where 26 were killed and 20 injured at a church in Texas this month, and 58 were killed and 546 injured at a concert in Las Vegas the month before — we find ourselves in familiar territory in the gun debate: inaction.
Briefly, it looked like there was movement on an uncontroversial ban of bump stocks, which the Las Vegas shooter used to transform his rifles into fully automatic weapons. But that seems to have stalled, and voters are not beating down congressmen’s doors to get it passed.
Why aren’t people sufficiently outraged to pressure Congress to do something — anything — about guns? Why isn’t a critical majority sufficiently motivated to match the passion of the gun rights movement?
Most Americans favor a host of stronger gun safety measures — especially universal background checks for gun purchases, supported by 90 percent of respondents in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Voters, however, do not punish lawmakers who defy their will on gun safety and submit to the NRA.
A vocal and passionate minority of gun rights proponents is allowed to dominate the debate and see its will enacted. This includes concealed carry being legal in every state; open carry, legal in 44; and permitless carry, legal in at least 11 states, allowing people to carry their guns in public with no permit — and no safety training. It also includes stand your ground laws in roughly two dozen states, which allows people to shoot first in public, rather than retreat from a perceived danger. And their prime lobby, the NRA, has inspired people to buy guns galore; the national arsenal now stands at approximately 265 million, with some estimates suggesting an even higher number.
Gun rights proponents tend to be single issue voters. Not so the silent majority who favors stronger gun safety regulations. Guns are not a priority for them — yet.
Why isn’t this silent majority sufficiently impassioned to impose its will politically? Part of the answer is that for most Americans guns are too abstract, and the havoc they wreak too remote.
This is not the case for our inner cities, of course, which see levels of violence on par with the developing world. Most Americans live in suburbs, however, where guns and gun violence are quite invisible. What’s more, guns do most of their damage at home, not on the street: two-thirds of gun deaths in America are suicides. And when guns — and the gun debate — make it into the news cycle, it is typically on the heels of a mass shooting. But mass shootings are surreal; they are hard to fathom, impossible to imagine and plan a response for.
Outside the news and the movies, guns and armed citizens are not a common sight for the vast majority. You generally don’t see people with guns roaming the mall, hanging out at Starbucks, filling up their car. When men with assault rifles appeared at the protests in Ferguson in 2015, and in Charlottesville this past summer, it was a media sensation. Yet the practice is perfectly legal in Missouri and Virginia.
Some will say maybe we are surrounded by concealed weapons and lawful gun owners on a regular basis, and we just don’t know it. I doubt it. Because it turns out gun ownership is highly concentrated.
A recent Harvard study found that half the guns in America are owned by 3 percent of gun owners. Only a third of households has a gun, and that number has been declining since the 1970s. Rates of gun ownership are plunging among young people. The NRA has worked hard to normalize guns in American society, but is not succeeding.
The NRA has enjoyed a stunning string of legislative successes because guns are an abstraction for most Americans. People turn a blind eye to things like stand your ground and permitless carry because they do not, for the most part, have to live with the outrageous implications of these laws — yet.
But the gun lobby should be careful what it wishes for. Because, if it succeeds in making guns a stronger presence in middle America — if suburbanites start seeing men with assault rifles on the corner, and stand your ground shootings in the street, then they will rise up.
The majority is not won over to the NRA. Instead, they are poised to overthrow it.
Firmin DeBrabander (email@example.com) is professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and author of “Do Guns Make us Free?”