The first time I fired a gun, I almost shot a friend with an AR-15. This was some years ago on the outskirts of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where my then-boyfriend—as it happens, a grandson of a famous firearms inventor—took me and a group of friends for a birthday outing that included firing off a whole mess of guns. The vacation was fun, except for the part where I unthinkingly swung the barrel of a loaded rifle past my friend while attempting to point the gun downrange; only then did I receive an introductory safety lecture. Shortly after that near-disastrous incident, I took a two-day pistol safety course. After a few hours of instruction, I was proficiently hitting a target at 20 yards. I can now outshoot my ex, who carries concealed everywhere he goes in his home state out West.
My experience underscored a key point about guns: They are easy to use—but also easy to misuse. By this I mean that it’s easy to learn the basics of shooting: how to line up your sights and squeeze the trigger. But to use them properly and safely takes work, and without the proper training, the line between recreation and disaster can be thin.
And under duress in real-world conditions, when your adrenaline is pumping and a moving target is shooting back, it’s almost impossible to handle them without that training. As one SWAT officer told me, “It’s basically ‘train train train,’ because when you’re in that type of stressful situation, you are going to revert to your lowest level of training.” And yet a common refrain from gun proponents after a deadly mass shooting is that if only somebody at the scene had been armed, lives would have been saved. Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association (NRA) takes it further: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This idea, which underpins most gun marketing efforts, overlooks two important points: that guns in the home are more likely to be used against their owners than against invaders; and that without sufficient training and practice, citizens should not expect to be able to defend themselves with a gun. In many states, the requirements for a concealed carry permit do not go far enough to establish whether the applicant knows how to operate a firearm in a high-pressure situation. Combined with gun-industry-backed statutes like “stand your ground” laws, it’s a recipe for more gun violence.
The availability of guns, then, is not the problem, or at least not the only one. Just as important are the beliefs people hold about guns. And instrumental in the formation of those beliefs is the gun industry, desperately clinging to its consumer base even as the American appetite for gun ownership continues a decades-long decline. In The Last Gun, Tom Diaz, a lawyer and former senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center, weaves together compelling stories of gun violence’s human toll—the domestic violence that spirals into murder-suicide, parents threatening each other with guns at their children’s soccer games, the litany of homicides and suicides facilitated by guns—with the larger narrative of the gun industry’s efforts to protect itself at all costs by promoting a permissive, almost cavalier, attitude toward guns in America.
It is this overarching story that explains why Americans feel the way they do about guns—and why America’s firearm death rates are so much higher than those in other developed nations despite otherwise unexceptional rates of crime and nonlethal violence. Diaz pins the blame squarely on gun manufacturers, retailers, and lobbyists, who have colluded to drive up demand for guns, gun accessories, and gun-related services and to remove any legal obstacle that could dissuade a potential buyer. While the NRA may claim to be independent of manufacturers, the reality is that the group receives millions of dollars each year from its corporate members, such as Springfield Armory, Beretta, and Xe (formerly Blackwater), three-quarters of whom come from the firearms industry. And the NRA is often supported in its lobbying efforts by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the official trade association for the firearms industry, whose membership includes over 8,000 manufacturers, distributors, retailers, ranges, sportsmen’s groups, and gun publishers.
The Last Gun sketches out the recent history of this coalition, which has worked hard to retain market share even as the national drop in violent crime and the declining popularity of hunting have undercut its traditional customer base. The economic pressures facing gun companies are substantial, and the demographic trends are not in their favor. The gun ownership rate in America has been sliding since the 1970s, when an average of 50 percent of American households had a gun; in 2012, that number was 34 percent. The decline is even sharper among young people, and gun owners today are disproportionately white, male, and old.
Indeed, despite the recent spate of high-profile massacres in Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown, the United States is in fact less violent and gun-crazy than it was a few decades ago. Paradoxically, the gun industry has become more extremist in that time. Diaz argues that the NRA’s power is declining, and that now is the time to take up legislative action against the permissive laws that have made gun violence a fixture in America. Unfortunately, writing before the April Senate vote against universal background checks, Diaz underestimated his opponents’ continued grip on our politics.
Around 30,000 Americans lose their lives to guns every year, on par with automobile accidents but well below heart disease. But heart disease and car accidents are not intentional acts of violence; firearm homicides and suicides are (just a tiny fraction of those 30,000 deaths are accidental). The juxtaposition between these numbers and congressional inaction is nothing less than shameful. When Congress cannot pass a universal background check that 86 percent of Americans support—indeed, a measure that many Americans think is already a law—it is clear that Congress is responding to the will of the gun lobby, and not the will of the people.
Indeed, the gun-control side has struggled to develop the deep base of support that the NRA enjoys in Congress. After every massacre, there is a brief push for the government to do something, but it fades with the news cycle. And the effect does not seem cumulative; there is little sustained, communal pressure that could sway legislators toward stronger gun laws.
On the other side, the gun industry has made a concerted effort to weaken existing gun laws with the goal of making ownership more attractive, drumming up support with dire, misleading warnings about congressional gun grabbers. Diaz unpacks three of the most prominent such initiatives that proponents have been pushing throughout the states and at the federal level: shall-issue concealed carry; the “castle doctrine” (i.e. one’s home is one’s castle, where force against intruders is justified); and—a focus of recent national attention—“stand your ground.”
The NRA has demanded that the federal government “shall” require states to accept one another’s concealed-carry permits, in blatant disregard of both states’ rights to set their own gun laws and of its own members’ opposing views. Such an initiative would have the effect of nationalizing the most lenient concealed-carry laws, which in many states is little more than a criminal background check, with no mandatory training on how to carry safely.
If concealed-carry laws create the legal basis for carrying a firearm, the Castle Doctrine and stand-your-ground laws provide legal cover for their use. At their most basic, castle-doctrine laws allow the occupant of a house to use deadly force against an intruder if he or she believes the intruder intends serious bodily harm. Stand-your-ground laws expand the concept of self-defense. There is a long-standing legal tradition that “one should first try to disengage or retreat, if attacked,” as Diaz notes, in order to be justified in the use of lethal force in self-defense. This principle is undermined by stand your ground, which eliminates the duty to retreat and “broaden[s] the circumstances in which one can legally respond with deadly force to include those in which only property is threatened and the threat is not imminent.” The wisdom of these laws is currently being contested in some states even as others consider implementing them.
But the gun industry hasn’t just been guiding our state and federal legislative agenda—it’s been winning in the courts too. In D.C. v. Heller, the Supreme Court in 2008 ruled that the Second Amendment confers an individual right to bear arms.
Prior to that ruling, gun-control proponents had argued that the Second Amendment guaranteed the right to bear arms only to organized militias. Consequently, gun-control advocates used moral arguments to make the case against gun ownership, while legislators focused on keeping guns away from criminals. In the wake of Heller, however, the gun-control movement has shifted its emphasis. Instead of moral suasion, advocates have adopted a new approach, focusing more on the public-health angle of gun violence. Such an approach offers a different way to achieve the goal of greater public safety that both sides claim to want. “[T]he history of public health shows that people do indeed change their minds and move away from culturally taught beliefs when they learn key facts,” says Diaz, citing smoking and unprotected sex. “The changes have occurred, in part, in response to a growing body of epidemiological research about the health risks associated with each of these activities.”
Diaz cites child-restraint use in cars as a particularly relevant example of a public-health approach to an issue that overcame culturally rooted opposition. In Tennessee in the 1970s, opponents claimed that requiring seat belts was an invasion of individual liberties, and that the best place for a child to travel was in its mother’s arms. Tennessee passed the first child-restraint laws in the nation in 1977, but included a “babes in arms” exception. As Diaz writes, “[P]arents who were either ignorant of the facts or thought they knew better than the experts were killing their own children.” The babes-in-arms exemption was finally repealed in 1981 when it became clear that children were being crushed against the dashboard by their parents in car accidents.
There are parallels to this in the world of guns. For instance, one cross-state study suggests that children in states with high gun ownership were 14 times more likely to commit suicide with a gun, more than twice as likely to be murdered with a gun, and ten times more likely to be killed accidentally with a gun than children in states with low gun ownership. Framing the gun problem as a public-health issue has seen some success. In a study of local California gun ordinances in the 1990s, researchers found that casting gun violence as a medical epidemic was crucial to developing and deepening legislative support for gun-control measures. This framework now permeates the mission statements of the largest gun-control organizations like the Brady Campaign; it combines the idea of preventing criminals from acquiring guns with the idea of promoting public health and safety for all Americans.
But this all brings up one of the biggest barriers to a more reasoned debate about gun policy in America: poor data. Simply put, we need more data on the public health effects of guns. Diaz pulls no punches in accusing Congress of creating this empirical black hole through gag measures like the Tiahrt amendments, which are provisions attached to federal spending bills that have prevented the release of aggregated data collected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) in the normal course of its activities. Without good, comprehensive data, gun policy becomes a he said-she said debate, with victory going to the best spin doctors—which is how the gun industry likes it, argues Diaz.
Diaz does an effective job of identifying the problems plaguing our conversation on guns. But The Last Gun falters where it matters most: charting a way out of the current stalemate. Diaz’s prescriptions to solve gun violence are rooted in the belief that guns are the primary source of violence. “The blizzard of gun violence documented in this book is not a ‘gun safety’ problem. Nor is it a problem of legal versus illegal guns. It is a gun problem,” Diaz says.
Given Diaz’s extreme vitriol and inflammatory language, it is hard to imagine that he was ever the gun enthusiast he claims to have been. His casting of his political enemies as evil rather than as rational actors, and his fanatical anti-gun agenda, renders his argument unpersuasive to anyone who doesn’t already share his views. Consequently, The Last Gun does little to shake up the debate.
Changing the conversation about guns begins with redrawing the battle lines. The battle over guns should not be between gun owners and nonowners; it should be between a gun industry that wants to promote gun sales at all costs, and an American public that acknowledges that there are legitimate, public-health reasons to regulate the purchase and use of firearms. Roughly three-quarters of the NRA’s membership disagree with vast swaths of its legislative agenda. The NRA is pushing for national reciprocity for concealed-carry permits; 91 percent of its members think states should get to decide for themselves. The NRA opposes any restrictions on people on terror watch lists from buying guns; 71 percent of the NRA rank and file support such bans. The NRA is against any laws requiring gun owners from reporting lost or stolen guns to the authorities; 64 percent of membership is for such laws.
There are other initiatives where common ground might be possible. Should pediatricians really be barred from discussing gun safety with patients, a prohibition passed by the Florida legislature in 2011? (That law was overturned by a court last year but is currently being appealed.) Should gag measures like the Tiahrt amendments, which impede effective law enforcement and public-health research, be on the books? One suspects a common-sense consensus could emerge to strike down such laws. It goes without saying that there are other contentious laws and policies that will spark intense disagreements. Repealing stand-your-ground laws is a good idea, but is there common ground there between the two sides? The same goes for tightening concealed-carry requirements.
But while differences between the two sides remain, there’s an opening here for a sane dialogue about gun ownership and the public interest. It will only happen, however, if we create the conditions for it. Gun owners certainly won’t be in the mood to talk if advocates like Diaz speak for the gun-control side. Claiming guns as the source of gun violence rings false, even silly, to gun owners. Gun violence and gun ownership are related but not synonymous; gun ownership does not always, or even most of the time, lead to gun violence. Besides being statistically incorrect, casting all gun owners as crimes waiting to happen is a good way to alienate potential sympathizers.
A balance can be struck between protecting the individual right to bear arms and the individual need to be safe. Part of that work involves determining what policies are in the public interest, rather than in the gun industry’s interest. If there’s one lesson from Diaz’s book that all progressives should take to heart, it’s that gun owners are not the problem. The gun industry is.