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The Politics of Gun Control

Guns and gun control have been a big issue in America for at least the last quarter century, but partisanship and emotional lobbying on both sides have made real solutions hard to come by, say two nationally respected experts on the topic.


Joe Sheley - Dean, Social Sciences and interdisciplinary StudiesThe politics of gun control is more and more about symbolism and less about substance, says Joe Sheley, co-author of In the Line of Fire, a book on teenage gun use, and dean of the College of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Sheley and colleague James D. Wright of Tulane University also co-wrote a study for the National Institutes of Justice on teens and guns.

Sheley says pro-gun control forces have been so concerned about the “lock” they feel anti-gun control forces have had on Congress, that the effectiveness of the legislation they propose has become secondary to the goal of getting legislation passed.

One example Sheley cites is the Brady Bill. “The Brady Bill was highly symbolic,” he says. “It was as important for the gun control advocates to pass it as to get a result, because it was one of the first times they had been able to break the opponents’ hold on Congress.”

Opponents of gun control are no more willing to address effectiveness, he says. “They say ‘Guns are not a problem—bad guys using guns are the problem. The key to solving the problem is to put the bad guys away,’” he says.

Both positions raise the specter of Big Brother, Sheley argues.

Attempts to reduce crime through gun control fly in the face of centuries of gun use—and the huge number of guns already in existence. And it can only be accomplished by inserting government further into people’s lives, he says.

On the other side, seriously reducing gun-related crime through criminal justice and prosecution efforts alone would require an almost military occupation of the country, and grant police much more power.

The solution, Sheley suggests, is to examine the social distribution of gun problems. “We need to look at the groups that use and misuse guns and see what it is that sets them apart socially, economically and culturally from non-users and legal gun users,” he says.

“It’s the old ‘liberal agenda,’ but that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful. Gun use somehow arises out of certain environmental and social settings. Why aren’t we looking at that?”

Will Vizzard

Will Vizzard - Associate Professor, Criminal Justice and former ATF agentBoth liberal and conservative politicians have used gun control to label their opponents, says Will Vizzard, criminal justice professor, and author of Shots in the Dark: The Policy, Politics and Symbolism of Gun Control, a comprehensive history of gun control policy in the 20th century.

Gun control first surfaced as an issue in the 1920s. But it wasn’t until lately, says Vizzard, a former agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, that a candidate’s stand on the issue has been used to paint the opposition as either a “pro-gun right-wing redneck” or an “anti-gun pinko liberal.”

In the interim, legislators defied such easy definitions. In fact, pro-gun forces, such as the National Rifle Association, and gun control advocates have actually flip-flopped on issues such as licensing and waiting periods.

For example, the gun control lobby hoped—and the NRA feared—that the newly elected Democrats of 1974’s “Watergate Class” would be staunch liberals who would easily pass anti-gun legislation. As it turned out, that group was suspicious of government and reluctant to give government more control, Vizzard says.

At the same time, the NRA was taking a similar Libertarian stance against government interference, launching the strategy that they still use today, “Gun laws are persecuting Americans.”

That anti-government sentiment kept the gun debate on the back burner until the 80s when gun control roared back with a vengeance. Politically-charged gun control issues came to the forefront including measures against so-called “cop-killer” bullets and assault weapons, and—perhaps the most hotly contested of them all—the Brady Bill.

Not only did these issues pit liberal against conservative, in some cases they splintered groups that were formerly on the same side. The largely symbolic issue of “cop killer” bullets put the NRA in opposition to the police. “It drove a wedge between the cops and the NRA, even though there was never such a thing as a ‘cop killer’ bullet,” Vizzard says.

The Brady Bill was similarly symbolic since most states already required the background checks called for in the law. Nonetheless, it fueled a whole round of accusations and finger-pointing—along highly partisan lines.

The lesson from all this, Vizzard argues, is that legislation crafted for political ends provides limited utility and defies implementation and enforcement. Implementation of the assault weapons bill, for example, got bogged down because “nobody can define an assault weapon,” he says.



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