Q & A: Giving Gun Control a Shot

April 1, 2007
Goss: framing gun violence as a public-health problem

Goss: framing gun violence as a public-health problem. Megan Morr

While a master’s candidate at Duke’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Kristin A. Goss M.P.P. ’96 completed a consulting project in southeast Washington aimed at determining how women, and mothers in particular, could be used to counteract an ongoing epidemic of gun violence. Later, as a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, Goss was looking for a dissertation topic when the Columbine massacre took place. She’d grown up ten miles east of Columbine High School, and, she says, “Columbine and my high school were demographic twins. I could completely relate to what was going on, and I just sat there in horror. My first, visceral, emotional reaction was, ‘Why do we not have a gun-control movement in America?’” That visceral reaction became the topic of her dissertation, which in turn became the basis for Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America (Princeton University Press, 2006). Goss is now an assistant professor of public-policy studies and political science at Duke.

Your book explains ways in which the gun-control movement has failed. Can you elaborate?

The book really focuses on how the “movement” has never really been a movement in the way that Civil Rights was clearly a movement, Women’s Rights was a movement. I argue that the gun-control campaign, in the sense of mobilizing its mass base, has really underperformed. If you look at polls, you see an overwhelming majority of Americans favor all sorts of firearms restrictions that we don’t have in place, and that’s been true for decades. With sad regularity, we have epidemics of gun violence. We have the highest gun-violence rate of any advanced industrial country by many orders of magnitude.

So you’ve got popular opinion; you’ve got certain political leaders who have been willing to carry the water on this issue; you’ve got these focusing events, these horrible tragedies that really jar us, and yet there doesn’t seem to be much organization or movement. You don’t see people marching in the streets, right? My book really explores why that is. It’s less interested in why we don’t have national handgun registration [than] “why haven’t we organized to get it?”

Why haven’t we?

What I did essentially was to look at issues that were similar to gun control along relevant dimensions, where you were trying to regulate individual behavior where there is a lot of death involved. I looked at the anti-abortion movement, smoking, and alcohol abuse. The question is what formula did these other movements figure out that the gun folks haven’t? [One area of distinction is] the role of external resources. Each of those movements has had support from philanthropic foundations, voluntary organizations like churches, and, in some cases, the government itself.

Were these resources absent or somehow less effective in the case of the gun-control movement?

It’s a complicated question. Church groups have been active, but this is an issue that divides congregations. By and large, foundations tend to be pretty timid; they want to stay away from hot-button political issues. The aspect that actually interests me the most is where women were. Because, if you look back historically, almost all movements for social reform and movements in which petitioners were asking for greater state intervention were led by women’s organizations. When you take an aspirin and don’t worry that you’re going to die, you can thank women’s groups for clean food and drug laws. But you can really see this profound shift starting in the ’70s away from these broad consumer interests and toward a narrower band of issues that pertain directly to women’s rights, status, and welfare.

What about the role of the government itself?

The gun-control folks have periodically sought to benefit from research and statistics gathered by the government, and there have been people in the government who have sought to regulate firearms or at least move in the direction of tightening laws. Each time a government agency has made noises about doing so, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has sprung into action. For example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission was going to hold hearings on whether they could ban or regulate bullets as a dangerous product. Before they could even do that, the NRA got a bill through Congress that said the Consumer Products Safety Commission may not regulate bullets. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta had a very small, but active program, doing research on gun violence. The NRA didn’t like that, so they got that division of the CDC defunded.

Why is the NRA so effective in blocking regulation and even research?

The NRA is organized exactly the right way to influence policy. It’s got a national headquarters that’s very powerful. And the national headquarters has a lobbying arm and it has a Political Action Committee. It also has state affiliates in every state who can work on state legislation. It has local affiliates who can show up at city council meetings. And then it’s even got sub-local, de-facto affiliates in the form of gun shows, gun ranges, gun shops, and that kind of thing.

You mention in your book that one of the traditional weaknesses of the gun-control movement was that it lacked a similar grassroots identity. Why didn’t this develop?

We have a system that our founders set up to sort of frustrate bold social reformers. Change is incremental. Things don’t happen overnight. If you look at alcohol regulation, we didn’t get prohibition overnight. It was preceded by 100 years of more modest, locally rooted organizing. Alcohol regulation began with voluntary associations called temperance societies in the 1830s and ’40s, where people would come together and pledge not to drink. That gave way to women’s protests outside saloons, which gave way to what are called “local option laws,” where cities would decide whether they would be wet or dry, which gave rise to state prohibitions on alcohol, which gave rise to national legislation that tightened-up interstate sales, which gave rise to this constitutional amendment. It was incremental in two ways: It started off with more modest efforts, and it worked within our federalist system.

Gun-control folks didn’t do either of those things. They were horrified by the gun violence. They said, “People are dying. We must act immediately, we must act boldly, we must ban guns at the national level.” And they never organized the grassroots. They thought that local gun laws would be ineffective. If Chicago bans guns, but Gary, Indiana, doesn’t, does that gun ban really help matters when guns and bad guys can travel so freely? That was their logic, and it certainly makes sense from a policy standpoint. But from a political standpoint, it didn’t make a lot of sense.

Have these organizations begun to take root now?

The Million Mom March in 2000 [organized by a suburban New Jersey mother in response to a national wave of school shootings] was a real turning point, because after that, there were these chapters or groups of women around the country who had experience organizing. For the first time, the gun-control “movement” does have something of a grassroots base.

Another issue you talk about in your book is framing. How has the framing of the gun-control movement changed in recent years?

Historically a really effective framing device has been to talk about the protection of children and families, particularly children. If you think about the anti-abortion movement, their entire premise is, “It’s a child, not a choice,” right? So abortion is baby-killing. The anti-smoking movement—when did it really take off? When they started talking about youth smoking, Joe Camel and whatnot.

The gun-control cause traditionally was framed in terms of crime prevention. In the early ’80s, but mainly in the ’90s, it started being framed as a public-health menace. And when you think about gun violence as a public-health problem, it focuses your attention on the victims, rather than on the perpetrators. The public-health frame softened the ground for talking about guns and kids. In the ’90s we had this run-up in juvenile gun violence. And then you have the school shootings. Because the nature of the problem was shifting a little bit, it was easy to start framing it in terms of child protection.

Has this framing worked?

The originator of the Million Mom March purposely and quite intentionally played off this maternalistic rhetoric to mobilize people. I surveyed a random sample of 800 people who were at the march [in Washington], and I asked them, among many other things, why they were there. [Five or six-hundred agreed to be contacted later, to follow up.] So six to nine months after the march, I contacted those people and asked them, “What have you done since?” and gave them a checklist of about twenty-five things they could have done. I was able to show, statistically, that people who had been at the march out of concern for children were more likely to be involved six to nine months later in intense activities—ones that are harder than putting a bumper sticker on your car—and to be involved in more activities.