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Busting the Myths About Guns and US Gun Policy

A Q&A with Dennis A. Henigan
Gun in hands“When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” “An armed society is a polite society.” “Gun control is a slippery slope to confiscation.” These are some of the slogans the gun lobby has used successfully to frame the gun control debate and block lifesaving gun legislation for decades. Dennis A. Henigan debunks the mythology of these pro-gun catchphrases in his latest book, “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People”: And Other Myths about Guns and Gun Control, which went on sale today. Our blog editor Christian Coleman caught up with Henigan to ask him why these slogans continue to influence public attitudes toward guns and gun control and how we can put an end to our recurring nightmare of gun violence.

Christian Coleman: Your book was originally published as Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy in 2009. What revisions and updates have you included in this new version?

Dennis A. Henigan: Much has happened on the gun violence issue since 2009, and I am grateful to Beacon Press for understanding the need for a fresh examination of the mythology that has proven to be such a substantial barrier to progress toward sensible gun laws and policies.

Certainly the horror of the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which twenty first graders and six adults were struck down, has been a key turning point in the national gun debate. The loss of those innocent young children shocked the conscience of the nation. In my new book, I discuss the profound impact of the Sandy Hook shooting on the politics of the gun issue, as it roused the Democratic Party from its torpor on the issue, which had lasted during the entire first Obama Administration. Prior to Sandy Hook, the conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party was that advocacy of gun control was simply not worth the political risk, although this thinking was based on an exaggeration of the NRA’s actual influence over election results. Now the Democratic Party appears fully committed to working for stronger gun laws, as evidenced by the dramatic recent House of Representatives sit-in led by civil right icon, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). Unfortunately, however, the Republican Party continues in its unequivocal allegiance to the NRA’s mythology; thus, the national stalemate on guns continues.

I hope it is clear from my new book that the case against the NRA’s bumper sticker logic is even stronger than it was in 2009. This is demonstrated by the important new research discussed in the book, as well as the stark reality of the mass shootings, and the daily lethal violence in our communities, that continue to be the uniquely American nightmare of gun violence.

CC: After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre declared, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Has this become the newest element of the NRA’s mythology?

DAH: Yes, it is the latest example of the NRA’s bumper-sticker logic and I devote an entire chapter of my book to addressing it.

It is a clever new way of expressing the idea that since it is futile to stop “bad guys” from getting guns, the only recourse is to arm the “good guys” to shoot back once an attack occurs. Note the premise that the world can be neatly divided into readily identifiable groups of “good guys” (who should be able to carry their guns everywhere) and “bad guys” (who will always be armed). The world, however, is not that simple, as we see from the experience in states that have made it easy for the “good guys” to carry concealed weapons. We know that many killers were legal carriers of concealed weapons right up to moment they pulled the trigger and shot an innocent person.

It is, of course, folly to base our gun policy on the idea that the only effective way to prevent gun deaths and injuries is to be prepared to respond with gunfire once the shooting starts. Indeed, in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history—the Orlando nightclub shooting—there actually was an off-duty police officer on site who did, in fact, return fire. Additional armed police, including a SWAT team, converged on the scene and a firefight ensued. The “good guys” shot back, and the toll was forty-nine dead and fifty-three wounded.

We must consider the unacceptable social cost of ensuring that our public places—from elementary schools, to churches, to restaurants, to college campuses, to sports stadiums—are populated with “good guys” with guns, all to create the remote possibility that one of those good guys will be at the right place at the right time with the right aim when the “bad guys” start shooting. The greater the concentration of guns in public places, the greater the risk of accidental shootings, arguments escalating to gunfire, and other lethal violence from an infinite variety of human interactions where the presence of a gun makes a deadly outcome far more likely. It is not surprising that the best available research shows that making it easier to carry concealed weapons is associated with increases in crime, particularly aggravated assault.

Note also that under the NRA’s formulation, the “bad guys” already have guns. The gun lobby simply dismisses the possibility that strong gun laws can prevent many dangerous individuals from getting access to guns in the first place. My book presents overwhelming evidence that strong gun laws can be effective, including the experience of other high-income nations who are not devoid of dangerous people, but have strong gun laws and homicide rates a fraction of the U.S. rate. The book also discusses the little-known American experience with regulation of machine guns, an eighty-year-old system of gun licensing and registration that has resulted in the miniscule use of machine guns in crime.

CC: Public opinion surveys show that 78% of Americans supported reinstating the ten-year ban on military-style assault weapons like the ones Omar Mateen used in the Orlando Pulse shooting. Why is there still resistance against implementing better gun policy on assault weapons?

DAH: The assault weapon issue is one of many gun control policy issues where the views of a clear majority of Americans are being ignored by our elected representatives. On this issue in particular, the NRA has been successful using the “slippery slope” argument to convince gun owners that an assault weapon ban would likely lead to broader gun bans. I devote a chapter of the book to the slippery slope argument because it is a key tactic used by the gun lobby to convince gun owners that the gun control debate is not really about modest proposals like universal background checks and restrictions on military-style assault weapons, because these are but steps down a “slippery slope” to the ultimate goal of gun control advocates: confiscation of all guns.

The fact is that assault weapons are semi-automatic versions of fully-automatic weapons designed for military use and are therefore equipped with military features—including accepting large-capacity ammunition magazines—intended to facilitate the firing of large numbers of rounds very quickly. The NRA insists that there are only “cosmetic” differences between assault weapons and other guns, but every national police organization favors reenactment of an assault weapon ban and, I assure you, it is not because of “cosmetics”. It is no coincidence that, time after time, mass shooters have used high-capacity assault weapons in their attacks.

Apart from the assault weapon issue, there is a price to be paid, in lost lives and grievous injuries, from allowing slippery slope arguments to carry the day. For example, the NRA used the same slippery slope arguments to oppose the Brady Bill which, since its enactment, has stopped over two million felons and other prohibited persons from buying guns from gun dealers and obtaining gun permits. If Congress had listened to the NRA, we would have sacrificed the demonstrable benefits of the Brady Bill because the imagination of some hypothetical gun-banning scenario was allowed to prevail.

CC: Why does the NRA characterize the Second Amendment as our country’s “first freedom”? And why does its interpretation of the Second Amendment vary so widely from the public’s?

DAH: The NRA touts the Second Amendment as America’s “first freedom” because its leadership believes “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” is the foundation of our other freedoms. The NRA has long advocated the view that, ultimately, the only guarantee we have against a tyrannical government is an armed citizenry ready to resist government authority by force. As an NRA field representative once told the New York Times, “The Second literally a loaded gun in the hands of the people held to the heads of government.” This view is chilling in its implications. It sanctions deadly violence as a tool of political dissent. We know that Timothy McVeigh invoked this principle to justify the Oklahoma City bombing. We must also wonder whether a similar idea motivated the deadly attacks on police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.  

The American people do not believe there is a constitutional right to engage in armed insurrection against the government. Nor do they believe the Second Amendment is a barrier to stronger gun laws. When the Supreme Court, in 2008, first recognized a constitutional right to have a gun in the home for self-defense, Justice Scalia’s majority opinion conceded that the right “is not unlimited” and should cast no doubt on the constitutionality of long-standing gun restrictions. Since that decision, the vast majority of gun laws have been upheld against court challenges, a record that must be deeply disappointing to the NRA.

CC: How do you envision our country’s solution to ending the recurring nightmare of mass shootings?

DAH: It does seem like we are living a national nightmare from which we cannot wake up. I constantly hear the question, “How many more mass shootings will it take before action is taken?” I wish I had an answer. On the gun issue, like no other, our democratic system has broken down. A well-financed and sophisticated lobbying and political operation, representing a loud and intensely active minority of gun owners, has been permitted to deny the majority the gun policies we need and deserve.

Over the long run, the answer is that we must build an army of committed gun control activists who are willing to take action, over the course of years, to influence legislators and policy-makers. Surveys show that those who favor weakening gun laws are far more likely to communicate their views to legislators, and take other actions to influence policy, than those who favor strengthening those laws. We must begin to close this “intensity gap” on the gun issue.

Even more importantly, gun control supporters must be prepared to make this an issue that affects their decision to vote for or against particular candidates for office and they must communicate their intention to candidates. Our current stalemate on the gun issue is due, in part, to the perception that there is a political cost to defying the NRA, but little political cost to voting against stronger gun laws. I argue in the book that increasing the intensity of public support for gun control, and overcoming the well-entrenched opposition, will require demolition of the NRA’s mythology. My sincere hope is that my book will be an important step toward that lifesaving goal.


About the Author

Dennis A. Henigan is director of legal and policy analysis at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and formerly vice president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Follow him on Twitter at @DennisHenigan and visit his website.