When Gabrielle Giffords tendered her resignation from the House of Representatives to Speaker John Boehner because she did not feel she could continue to serve at her current level of disability, the entire House erupted in a rare moment of bipartisan unity, supporting their brave colleague who had survived a bullet through the brain at point-blank range.
That was not, however, the first bipartisan moment related to the attack on Gabby Giffords, nor would it be the last. In 2004, Congress let the assault weapons ban Bill Clinton had passed “sunset” despite overwhelming public support. That law limited the number of rounds of ammunition a shooter could fire before having to reload, and letting it die an untimely death allowed a mentally ill young man in Tucson to purchase a handgun with a 33-round magazine. Had the assault weapons ban remained in place, he may well have been able to shoot the congresswoman, but he would not have been able to empty his clip, killing 6 people and wounding 13 others, before being tackled to the ground.
That moment was followed by another bipartisan moment, when President Obama delivered a moving speech on Jan. 12 at the scene of the carnage in Tucson. In it, the president called on the nation to mourn not only the shooting of a beloved member of Congress but the lives of the people who died at the hands of Giffords’ assailant, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge. But on neither that national day of mourning nor on any day since has the president or the members of Congress, who are either too frightened or too corrupted by the National Rifle Association, honored Giffords or the memory of those who died in that massacre in Tucson in the most appropriate way: with a return to common sense, like reestablishing the assault weapons ban that might have saved their lives. Later in January, Representative Carolyn McCarthy and Senator Frank Lautenberg proposed legislation to outlaw high-capacity magazines; it has gone nowhere.
The first President Bush, unlike his swaggering son (who advocated the demise of a ban on assault weapons whose sole purpose is to hunt humans) showed political courage by publicly quitting the N.R.A. in disgust in 1995 when it began advocating ideas like its contention that citizens need military-style assault weapons to protect themselves against our own government (members, for example, of the National Guard). In colorful but paranoid language, it called law enforcement officers “jack-booted government thugs,” prompting the elder Bush to condemn the group for its disrespect for the law and those who defend it. Since then, it has successfully advocated for increasingly radical laws. One of them, of course, is Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which discourages de-escalation of potential firefights in public with predictable results, like the shooting death in Sanford, Fla., of Trayvon Martin.
Between the Giffords massacre and Martin’s death, we have seen more shootings and more bipartisan moments. Around the anniversary of the Tucson massacre that cut short the congressional career of an extraordinary woman — a woman I had come to know personally and adore in her five years in Congress — came two more mass killings. One occurred in Chardon High School in a small town in Ohio, as a 17-year-old opened fire on students with a Ruger .22-caliber semiautomatic with a capacity of 10 rounds. Fortunately the alleged shooter, T.J. Lane, didn’t have access to a gun with more firepower. About two weeks later, a man entered one of the nation’s premiere medical centers, at the University of Pittsburgh, with two semiautomatic handguns, and opened fire.
And in yet another show of bipartisanship, political leaders on both sides of the aisle put on their silencers. If an assassination attempt on one of their own did not move members of Congress to ask whether the N.R.A. has a little too much sway in their chambers, a few dead and wounded teenagers, medical patients, and their family members were not going to unlock their safeties. Most have clearly made the risk assessment that they have more to fear from the N.R.A. than they do from an occasional sniper. In the 2010 election cycle, the N.R.A. spent over $7 million in independent expenditure campaigns for and against specific candidates, and it has a remarkable record of success at taking out candidates and elected officials with the misfortune of being caught in its crosshairs.
Over a million Americans have lost their lives to gunfire since that awful spring of 1968 when both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were killed by assassins’ bullets. Last year alone guns killed or wounded another 100,000 Americans; roughly 30,000 of them died. Had that occurred elsewhere, we would call it genocide.We don’t know exactly how many have been killed in the fighting in Libya, Egypt and Syria, but our elected officials have had far less trouble calling for the ouster of Middle Eastern leaders than the leadership of the N.R.A.
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But it’s not just money that prevents common-sense action on gun violence in America. Millions of Americans hunt, and a third of all households in the United States own a gun. Guns were part of the frontier culture that shaped the American psyche, and hunting has passed from generation to generation in much of America. As a son of the South, I could give an intruder a run for his money (although, like most people, I would do better to rely first on our security service and the loud alarm a break-in sets off), and I put on my thickest Southern accent and tease my soon-to-be teenage daughter that I’ll be out on the front porch “cleaning my shotgun” when her first date arrives at the door.
In so many cases, it’s a failure of our leaders — Republicans, who prey on the fears of their constituents and don’t even bother anymore to hide the puppet strings pulled by large corporations, and Democrats, who too frequently forget that humans are supposed to be vertebrates (and hence to have a spine) — to speak to Americans’ ambivalence about guns. Over the years in my capacity as a strategic messaging consultant, I’ve tested a range of messages on guns, and the messages that resonate with hunters and gun owners sound like this: “If you need an M-16 to hunt deer, you shouldn’t be anywhere near a damned gun,” or “If you’re hunting with an AK-47, you’re not bringing that meat home for dinner.” The first things responsible hunters teach are never to point a gun anywhere but up or down unless you mean to shoot, and where the safety is.
It’s no wonder that Democrats have backed off of even talking about guns since Clinton signed the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban into law nearly two decades ago. The last thing you want to be armed with as an advocate of common sense are phrases like “gun control,” which makes a government-wary public and law-abiding gun-owners uneasy — and susceptible to tendentious “slippery slope” arguments about how “they want to take away your guns.” In contrast, everyone but the lunatic fringe in America supports gun safety laws — such as eliminating the gun-show loophole that allows the sale of military-grade weapons without background checks, and has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans as well as Mexicans, whose drug cartels find the loophole extremely helpful.
Democrats could steel their spines if they could find the point of intersection between law-abiding gun owners and law-abiding citizens who may or may not own a gun but want to keep their families safe. In national testing, we’ve found that a simple, non-equivocating statement focusing on that point of intersection — law-abiding — beats the toughest “they want to take away your guns” message we can fire at it. It leads every demographic group other than those who stockpile weapons to support common-sense gun safety laws. Offered a message that speaks to their ambivalence, people readily recognize that a 33-round clip makes it virtually impossible to tackle a shooter until he has had time to kill 15 or 16 people. They understand that allowing people to purchase military-style weapons at gun shows without a background check renders gun safety laws meaningless. And they find it incomprehensible that we have laws on the books that tie the hands of law enforcement officials trying to track down where a gun was bought and sold, and that we keep such sloppy records that criminals, people with a history of commitment for care for serious mental illness, and people with active restraining orders on them can slip by background checks even where they’re required.
Beginning with a statement of principle both makes clear the speaker’s intent and inoculates against all the slippery-slope arguments used by the N.R.A. and the elected officials in its employ or fearful of its power: “My view on guns reflects one simple principle: that our gun laws should guarantee the rights and freedoms of all law-abiding Americans. That’s why I stand with the majority who believe in the right of law-abiding citizens to own guns to hunt or protect their families. And that’s why I stand with the majority who believe they have the right to send their kids to school and see them return home safely at night.” Versions of a message containing that principle win by over a 2:1 margin with independents, and they win in every region of the country, including in my own backyard, in the red clay of Georgia.
This shouldn’t be an issue of left or right. Grocery stores in Tucson, where Gabby Giffords was shot (and where my mother-in-law shops — she just happened to be out of town that Saturday), are not hotbeds of “socialism.” I don’t know the party affiliations of the fallen teenagers in Chardon or the staff members, patients or families in Pittsburgh, but I suspect they ranged across the political spectrum.
Guns don’t kill people. Silence does.