Giving Gun Control a Shot
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,
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.