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What Gun Control Advocates Can Learn from the Anti-Choice Movement

By Carole Joffe

This post originally appeared at RHRealityCheck.

8283146373_d221fdb53a_zHere are some things that have occurred in the immediate aftermath of the tragic slaughter of children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut: More signatures on a petition calling for gun control than any other petition that has been sent to the White House; conservative politicians from both parties—for example senators Joe Manchin of W. Virginia, and Marco Rubio of Florida—for the first time signaling their willingness to do something about gun regulation; changing poll numbers about gun control among the general population, with support for stricter control at a ten-year high. And perhaps most significantly, total silence for several days about this incident from the National Rifle Association (NRA), considered to be the most powerful lobby in the United States.

These post-Newtown reactions have led numerous observers to feel that this latest mass murder incident may be a game changer. For years, many politicians have been fearful of offending the NRA and the public has been divided about guns, if not largely indifferent. As a result, there has not been a visible or highly effective gun control movement in this country, in spite of the hard work for many years of groups such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.  Correspondingly, there has been almost no Congressional legislative action to curtail guns during the Obama administration, and at the state level, there have been more efforts to expand gun owners’ prerogatives—for example, concealed carry laws—than to limit then.

To be sure, petitions and expressions of outrage by both politicians and the public do not necessarily lead to a social movement. Even if an assault weapons ban is passed—Senator Dianne Feinstein has pledged to introduce such legislation in January—that might be a one-off event (welcome as it would be), and politicians would then turn their attention to the many other issues on their plates. And recall that there was such a ban passed in 1994 during the Clinton presidency—and then that ban was allowed to quietly expire in 2004. That expiration is a textbook case of what happens when legislation is not accompanied by a vibrant social movement that is able to rally the public and to hold lawmakers accountable.

But let’s assume that the Newtown shootings do lead to a social movement with staying power. What could such a movement hope to accomplish? To answer this question, I find myself looking to the history of the anti-choice movement in this country. To put it mildly, I am no fan of this movement, but I do acknowledge its effectiveness in limiting access to abortion and stigmatizing the procedure. Both the current anti-chocie movement and a potential gun control movement share the feature of wanting to limit something that is legal but contested. As Robin Marty has wittily put it in a recent post, how do we make guns as difficult to get as an abortion?

Here are three pertinent lessons drawn from the forty years of anti-choice activity since the Roedecision. The first is the utility of a “chipping away” strategy. The antiabortion movement has thus far been unable to have Roe overturned, and with Obama’s re-election putting future Supreme Court nominees in his hands, this will be likely the case for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the hundreds of regulations passed by state legislatures over the years—the near-absolute restrictions on public funding, the “TRAP” laws that have demanded irrelevant and expensive physical upgrades to clinics, the waiting periods, the parental consent laws and so on—have made access to abortion care very cumbersome for providers, and often unmanageable for patients, especially the young and the poor. In short, Roe technically still stands, but for too many women unable to find and afford abortion care, this is a hollow victory.      

Similarly, those gun control activists who would like to see an America where private gun ownership only minimally exists (as in Japan and a number of European countries) will never reach this goal, as a recent Supreme Court decision on the Second Amendment made clear. But a renewed gun control movement could chip away at this right. A ban on assault weapons and on gun magazines with huge amounts of ammunition capacity, higher prices and taxes for ammunition, limitations on the amount of guns and ammunition a person can buy in a given time period, far stricter enforcement of waiting periods and back-ground checks, and of course, serious efforts to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill are just some of the items under discussion that would accomplish such “chipping.”

Second, the anti-abortion movement over the years has effectively re-framed its rationale for opposing abortion from moralistic or religious reasons to matters of safety and a defense of the physical and mental health of women. “Abortion hurts women” is a prime example of this re-framing. Given that medical researchers have recently shown that American women are 14 times more likely to die in childbirth than from a first trimester abortion, and given that psychological experts have repeatedly debunked the claims of “post abortion syndrome” made by the antiabortion movement, this re-framing is hardly credible. But these arguments have been eagerly appropriated by anti-choice politicians to justify all sorts of restrictions.

Similarly, a gun control movement might consider framing its arguments against guns not only as matters of reducing crime and mayhem or simply the immorality of a society armed to the teeth—but also, with far more credibility than the above-mentioned anti-choice attempts, as a public health issue, as various clinicians and researchers have long urged. Treating gun violence through a public health lens implies, as with all public health campaigns, a focus on injury prevention and a necessity to regulate guns as consumer items that are dangerous. This framing also leads to the recognition of the burden that our country’s epidemic of gun violence puts on hospital emergency rooms, as well as the lasting costs of caring for people wounded by gunfire.

Finally, one of the most consequential activities of the anti-choice movement has been the stigmatizing of abortion, and especially the abortion provider. Providers have been relentlessly caricatured by the anti-choice movement as greedy, medically-inept and immoral. They also have been the target of unacceptable levels of violence and harassment by the militant wings of the movement. While most in the medical profession are themselves pro-choice and do not accept this portrayal of abortion providers, the controversy surrounding abortion has facilitated the marginality of abortion provision from the rest of the medical community.

For a gun control movement, a comparable strategy that suggests itself is to stigmatize certain kinds of gun ownership. For example, to cite a point currently offered even by some gun owners, why does any private citizen need an assault weapon? The prime targets for stigmatization, however, are the gun manufacturers and dealers, and organizations such as the NRA. These are the groups and individuals who directly profit from gun sales. They are the ones who most strongly resist any kind of regulation and who make little or no effort to screen the individuals to whom they sell dangerous weapons. It is these merchants of death that need to be held accountable for their role in not only the spectacular tragedies such as occurred at Newtown, but for the 88 individuals that die each day in the U.S. due to gun violence. In sum, the lesson that a gun control movement can learn from the anti-abortion experience is that effective action involves both legislative and cultural campaigns.

Similarities aside, there is one very important distinction to be drawn between these two movements. The anti-abortion movement has long tolerated an extremist wing that has murdered eight members of the abortion providing community and has terrified thousands of other providers and patients. The threat of intimidation and violence always hovers around the abortion issue, and explains a large part of the stigma and controversy in this field. Yet another function of this extremist wing is that it makes the rest of the movement and its demands more palatable. A gun control movement, by definition, could never tolerate such a violent flank. But in an ironic connection between these two groups, if a successful gun control movement does emerge in the United States, it may well recapture for Americans what it truly means to be “pro-life.”

About the Author

Carole Joffe is the author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us. Joffe is a professor in the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco (however, the views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Regents of the University of California, UCSF, or the UCSF Medical Center).

Photo by mdfriendofhillary on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.