We’ve had another mass shooting in America. Another school shooting. I’ve written about this and guns previously. I’ve never gotten much of a reaction to what I wrote, so I guess it barked up the wrong tree. This time, I thought I’d just express some thoughts bouncing off the walls in my head about guns and Prohibition, with no definitive conclusions.
This is, in part, inspired by comments from my friend, Jon Gold. I was going to do my usual, and lay out the groundwork and the history behind these thoughts. But I don’t have the time right now. Maybe I will write it all up later. But for now, a somewhat shorter version, much to everyone’s relief, I’m sure.
Fair warning. I am not trying to influence your position on the issue of guns here. But I am going to talk about them.
GUNS ARE THE ISSUE
Don’t kid yourself. We are talking about a shooting. The issue is guns. Because the ready availability of guns is what makes this level of carnage possible. No matter what other factors are in play in mass shootings, one stays constant. Guns.
I am going to elaborate on this concept because it seems to receive the most push back.
Say I had mental health issues. Say I even had a friend who, scared of what I am saying and doing lately, tips off the FBI that I might be dangerous. Say the FBI does not follow up on that tip. Say I then act out and try to attack a bunch of people at a school. But say I did it with a sword. Or a knife. Or a club. Or almost any other weapon.
That would not result in 17 dead and numerous others wounded. That may not even result in 1 casualty. See, it’s way harder to learn how to effectively use one of those other weapons and do damage. And I’d have to think about it a lot more. Because it would take a lot more physical effort, a lot more up-close attacks, and so on. You can make some of these same or similar arguments were I to instead try to come up with a bomb.
Meanwhile, guns present much easier means. I can already lawfully own one. Guns and ammunition are readily available. I don’t have to do a lot of planning. I don’t need much training to do a lot of damage. I don’t have to get up close. Don’t have to expend as much effort physically. It takes a lot more to get close to me to take me down. And so on.
Set all the other factors in play aside. Focus only on the means by which the assailant attacked. Guns allow for far greater carnage. Combine that with the ready availability, and they clearly are the weapon of choice for acting out in this country. Regardless of whether we’re taking something premeditated or acting on impulse.
People act out in other countries. But in other developed nations, they don’t have as ready access to guns. As a result, the U.S. is the only developed nation that routinely faces this kind of tragedy.
Let’s stop kidding ourselves. All those other factors may be important. But this is always going to come back to the guns.
GUNS ARE A WEDGE ISSUE
Guns are a hot button issue for a lot of people.
Our culture has a strong affinity for guns that’s fairly unique among developed countries for a lot of solid reasons, of which the Second Amendment is just a part, and also an excuse.
On the other hand, when you look at the deaths of innocents and the physical and emotional trauma caused by guns in this country, there are clearly a lot of reasons to feel strongly about gun control, or eliminating guns entirely.
Unsurprisingly, people tend to feel very passionately about this issue. It polarizes opinion. Folks tend to fall into either/or camps. As a result, it is a “wedge issue” that political action groups, in this case the NRA, can wield to ensure what they want legislatively.
Wedge issues can be used to create voting blocks that vote along wedge lines, no matter what other stances candidates present. And political action groups can harness those blocks as leverage to get what they want out of candidates. They can also use the blocks and strong feeling the issue evokes to raise money and further pressure candidates to do their bidding.
The NRA has successfully done this on gun issues for years. As a result, we appear to be more closed off from considering gun issues legislatively than we have ever been in this country.
CONTRASTING GUNS TO PROHIBITION
Lessons can be learned by looking at another wedge issue in this country, Prohibition. Where again, political action groups used a wedge issue to get what they wanted legislatively and to ensure things stayed that way for a while.
Prohibition did actually do some good in this country. But it also did an enormous amount of harm. And because of the power the temperance groups wielded, reasonable concerns about prohibition could not be addressed. All attempts were rebuffed, which meant things only got worse as prohibition continued.
One lesson to be learned: Groups ensuring legislation along wedge issues don’t care anything about the other issues. But we Americans have to care. Because we live with those other issues on a day-to-day basis. Immigration, infrastructure, wage inequality, healthcare, and so on. Thus, there are obviously real perils in letting wedge issues dominate our political choices.
An interesting point arises when looking at the stances of the successful prohibitionists compared to the successful gun lobbyists. In the case of the temperance movement, the political action groups stood for banning something to which we had large cultural attachment. They stood against corporate interests. But their stance centered around the moral argument that preventing the damage alcohol brought to lives outweighed the need to preserve personal freedoms to drink what you wanted. Winning on a wedge issue because you can cite moral authority makes sense.
Yet in the modern day, the NRA and its allies stand for the opposite position. Their stance allies them to corporate interests. Their stance centers on the argument that the personal freedom to own guns should be kept inviolate and outweighs preventing the loss of life and injury which guns uniquely make possible.
In fact, unlike alcohol, the main purpose of a gun is to kill. And most guns are manufactured for the purpose of killing people. It seems like that should be a harder position to successfully push. It lacks the same level of moral authority. And one would think that regardless of our cultural attachment to guns, we were far more attached to alcohol and yet let that be regulated. But things have not fallen out that way. The NRA and other gun lobbyists are using prohibitionists’ plays to rack up wins while being on the other side of the argument.
Meanwhile, those taking the opposing stance to the gun lobby appear not to have looked at the analogous temperance crusaders’ model at all. Nor have they apparently studied the path to Prohibition’s repeal. Long story short, it involved the rise of an equal and opposite lobby, using the same tricks and leverage to overpower the temperance forces’ influence.
In contrast, those opposed to the gun lobbyists lack the focused organization and tactics of the prohibition and later anti-prohibition political action groups. They have failed to generate the monetary or voting block leverage necessary to oppose the NRA’s influence. And so, the NRA’s control, which it has been exerting for over a decade or two (I’d say longer than that, actually), continues with no sign of abating. And no real challenge.
Personally, that kind of influence by any political action group, no matter its position, disturbs me. Because it takes power away from the people, and their interests get lost along the way. But I can’t deny the effectiveness.
Take from that what you will.
If I make mistakes in analysis, I want to correct them. I also think I need to add some additional points here.
While I talked about the similarities between the various sides of the prohibition and gun debates, I failed to point out some key differences. For example, key ways the goals differ. During the prohibition struggles, one side wanted to preserve the rights to drink nearly unrestricted, while one side sought a total ban. To be fair, there were more moderate forces that only wanted “strong liquor” banned, but they are not the group that prevailed. In the struggle over gun reform, the NRA argues for nearly unrestricted rights regarding guns. Meanwhile, the other side has not sought a total ban, but rather reasonable restrictions. Those that seek larger restrictions or a total ban are in the minority.
Further, the two debates differ in the nature of their subject matter. Guns are the only objects of property that are specifically protected by the Constitution. Other property rights are only spoken of in general terms. And yes, we can get into a discussion about people, i.e., slaves, as property, but people are not objects, and there is a Constitutional Amendment abolishing the idea that people can legally be considered property. Guns, on the other hand, remain specifically protected. In contrast, Alcohol, prior to the 18th Amendment prohibiting it, was not part of the Constitution or its Amendments at all.
Alcohol is also largely viewed as recreational. Now, I would guess that there are a far greater number of people who drink in this country than own guns. But it is still not viewed as an absolute necessity. Meanwhile, many argue that guns are necessary, both for hunting and personal/home protection. Why does that matter? Because when something is only recreational, it is a lot easier to argue for getting rid of it, than for something that many see as serving real purpose. Especially if the latter is also protected under the Constitution.
As to the sides in the current argument on guns, I believe I was unfair to those opposing the current gun lobbyists. It takes time to build a coalition. The Anti-Saloon League took decades to get to the level of power it did. And its main power stemmed from acquiring a single-issue voting block through propaganda, door-to-door grass roots, and partnering with other temperance organizations. That voting block did not need to represent a majority of voters. It simply needed to represent enough voters to swing an election one way or another. Then, the League could make it clear to candidates that, no matter what else their platform was, if they voted dry, that block would get them elected. If they voted wet, it would be used to get their opponent elected. I still believe the NRA sits in a similar position today.
But I need to keep in perspective the wets from back then. They took a while to get organized. They first needed to realize that the prohibition lobby was a real threat. And in the end, it was not the businesses tied to the liquor industry that saw this end. It was a combination of matters, including equal and opposite lobbying in opposition to the Anti-Saloon League. That the opposition took time and the real effects of prohibition to truly gather steam. The grass-roots needed time to determine whether they thought the experiment failed.
Similarly, for any opposition to the current gun lobbyists, it takes time to gather steam. Recent events, spurred on by the Parkland students, have made more people think about where they stand on the issues and to make a stand. That means more people have come forward to find that there are already organizations lobbying against the gun lobbyists. For example, the grass-roots organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which stresses that its stance is anti-gun violence, not anti-gun. The organization seems well aware of the need to create a voting block and use it to pressure for change. So it was unfair of me to say that neither the numbers nor the organization is available, nor that those organizations are unaware of the lessons from the prohibition struggles.
I still believe that, when it comes to money, such organizations will struggle against the large amounts the various gun industry businesses can generate. But I did not mean to suggest earlier or here that that struggle is not worth engaging. Again, the Anti-Saloon League and other temperance organizations prevailed against the liquor industry.
I still feel there are lessons all of us can take from the prohibition struggles, including what it took for each side to prevail. But I also think I presented an overly critical view of those opposing the gun lobbyists in the present day, especially in light of the existing organizations’ approaches and the spike in support generated in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Florida helping to provide additional numbers from which to create substantive voting blocks.