The Missing Movement

Have gun control advocates adopted the wrong strategy?
Writer: 
May 21, 2013

If Phil Cook backed his way into the study of gun violence in the U.S.—arriving at the topic via a broader study of criminal justice—Kristin A. Goss found herself thrown in headfirst. On the afternoon of April 20, 1999, Goss M.P.P. ’96, then a graduate student at Harvard, was standing in her Somerville apartment when she saw the face of a Denver anchorman on the television set. Goss had grown up in Colorado, and she recognized the anchorman. “I remember thinking, wondering why there was no real movement for gun control in this country. And I realized I was staring at my dissertation topic.” That dissertation, titled “Disarmed: The Real American Gun Control Paradox,” won the Harold D. Lasswell prize—awarded nationally for the best dissertation in the field of public policy— and helped secure Goss a position at Duke, where she was hired in 2005 as an assistant professor of public policy studies and political science.

The “paradox” in “Disarmed” is a political one: Even as incidents of gun violence become more numerous and widespread, Goss argues, gun-control activists have not been able to achieve serious firearms-policy reform. For Goss, this is partly a matter of divergent strategies. While the gun lobby successfully focused much of its energy on state and local laws, gun-control activists were intent on getting national legislation passed—the theory being that only big and bold legislation could solve the gun-violence epidemic.

“The difficulty was that gun-control advocates overreached in the early days,” Goss says. “By pushing for handgun bans, they didn’t build up a momentum from lower-level, more incremental victories. These handgun-ban strategies helped energize and politicize the NRA and make it into the no-compromises ‘gun lobby’ that it is today.”

“I found myself wondering why there was no real movement for gun control in this country. And I realized I was staring at my dissertation topic.”

In 2006, Goss incorporated much of the material from her dissertation into Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America, which was published by Princeton University Press, and endorsed by many prominent gun-control campaigners—from Sarah Brady to U.S. Representative Carolyn McCarthy—as both an important political history of firearms policy and a playbook for activists.

Credit: Patrice Gilbert

In that way, Goss’ work has come to complement that of her mentor Phil Cook. Where Cook looks at gun control from an economics angle, Goss studies the policy and political context.

Goss has turned her attention to the public reaction to the Sandy Hook shootings—and particularly how that reaction compares to the public outcry after the Columbine massacre. She says she has identified four main areas of contrast. First, there is the question of Internet activism, which was relatively rudimentary in 1999 and is extremely dynamic today. Web 2.0 tools like Twitter and Facebook “greatly magnify the ability of leaders to reach sympathizers and mobilize them in an old-fashioned civic fashion.”

Second, the networks of survivors of mass shootings have assumed a national profile in a way they never did before. Of course, Goss points out, this kind of activism is not new—Tom Mauser, for instance, a father of one of the Columbine victims, was an extremely outspoken gun-control proponent. But now, Goss says, “there’s a whole new cadre of leaders, operating at a much higher level.” Among those leaders are the Virginia Tech survivor Colin Goddard and former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who—along with her husband, Mark Kelly—recently founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, a PAC dedicated to reducing gun violence.

A third factor, according to Goss, is the willingness of deep-pocketed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to throw his money and power into a range of gun-control measures. Bloomberg’s PAC, Independence USA, has invested millions in candidates sympathetic to gun-control measures. In February, Independence USA spent $2.3 million attacking Debbie Halvorson, an NRA-endorsed Illinois Democrat campaigning to replace former Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. Halvorson eventually conceded in the primary.

“Bloomberg is the tenth-richest person in America,” Goss says, “and he’s willing to do the hard politics in a way I haven’t seen from a lot of other donors. He’s sending a message that if you associate yourself with the NRA, it’s a losing strategy.”

And there’s the timing with respect to the political season. The Columbine shootings took place in 1999, in the run-up to the hotly contested 2000 presidential election. Sandy Hook, on the other hand, occurred after Barack Obama had been elected to a second term, meaning that Obama has been able to speak out against gun violence in a way he never would have in September or October of 2012. Meanwhile, Republicans, having lost not just the presidential election but plenty of Senate races as well, face the challenge of devising a gun-policy platform that appeals to an increasingly diverse electorate. Goss, like her colleague Phil Cook, has been much in demand in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings—by her count, since December, she has written four newspaper op-ed columns, appeared on radio or television nine times, and been quoted on the topic of gun control thirty-four times. In April, Goss, who spends half the academic year in Washington, leading the Sanford School’s new Duke in D.C.-Public Policy program, was on hand as the Senate weighed a series of gun-control proposals. None of those proposals, even a compromise measure on background checks, gained enough votes to proceed in the Senate.

Cautiously optimistic: Goss says the Sandy Hook mass shooting could provide the  political opening for stricter regulation.

“I watched the debate and a few of the votes, and I can say that it was very jarring to see the pro-gun rights senators giving each other backslaps,” Goss says, “directly below all these victims and survivors of gun violence, with their faces drawn. It was moving and stirring and really quite stunning.”

Goss says she’s kept tabs on the unpredictable gun-control debate for too long to hazard any predictions on how the next year will play out. Despite the failure of the most recent gun-control measures, she says gun-control activists still have a modicum of momentum on their side. “I think you’ll find that the activists are now really looking at the 2014 midterms for an opportunity to persuade lawmakers.”

Consider Americans for Responsible Solutions and Independence USA, two PACs that will be active in the run-up to the midterms, she adds. “Election results can be extremely persuasive.”