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The Myth of a "Culture War" Over Guns

By Dennis Henigan

Could it be that the culture war over guns is more myth than reality? Yes, according to a recent article by the oddest of political couples, Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz and Democratic Mayor and gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett of Milwaukee.

In an op-ed appearing in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Luntz and Barrett support their striking conclusion by citing Luntz’s survey for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, of which Barrett is a member, showing strong support among gun owners, and even among NRA members, for measures to strengthen our gun laws. For example, 69% of self-described NRA members, and 86% of gun owners who do not belong to the NRA, support closing the “gun show loophole,” by extending Brady Law background checks to private sales at gun shows. As Luntz and Barrett say, “the poll also found support among NRA members and other gun owners for numerous other policies to strengthen safety, security and law enforcement,” including blocking gun sales to persons on the terrorist watch list, requiring gun owners to report lost and stolen guns, and providing more crime gun data to local police.

To be sure, the Luntz poll found gun owners strongly supportive of Second Amendment rights. But the point is that even NRA members see stronger gun laws to protect public safety as entirely consistent with the Second Amendment. When significant proportions of supposedly opposing cultural groups support the same policies then, as Luntz and Barrett suggest, “the culture war over the right to bear arms isn’t much of a war after all.”

As I have observed elsewhere, talking about guns as a “cultural” issue is a way of framing the issue that is highly beneficial to the NRA. The core of the gun lobby’s strategy is to use fear tactics to keep gun owners in a constant state of agitation so that they can be activated to oppose even modest gun law reforms. The NRA needs gun owners to believe that the debate is not “really about” such reforms as background checks at gun shows, but rather is about a sustained attack on a personal possession that has great practical and symbolic significance for millions of Americans and is, ultimately, about the values of those gun-owning Americans.

In short, the NRA needs the debate to be about banning the guns used by Americans for hunting and self-defense. If, on the other hand, the debate focuses on the pros and cons of specific reforms to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, the NRA is on shaky ground because its own members actually support many of those reforms on the merits. That, of course, is why the NRA is so threatened by the Luntz survey.

In this context, it is interesting to contemplate the likely impact of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller striking down the D.C. handgun ban as unconstitutional. As an interpretation of the meaning of the Second Amendment, Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in Heller is indefensible. However, by creating a new personal right to a gun in the home for self-defense, the Court took handgun bans “off the table” (in Justice Scalia’s words) as a policy alternative. If broad gun bans are “off the table,” there is reason to believe that, over the long term, it will be more and more difficult for the NRA to sell gun owners on the idea that any strengthening of our gun laws is but a step down the “slippery slope” to gun confiscation. The “culture war” framing of the issue then will begin to dissolve and the NRA’s fear tactics will become less and less effective.

Don’t expect the NRA to abandon its reliance on the fear of gun bans – it is not clear that the gun lobby knows any other way of arguing its case. And, admittedly, it may take years before the impact of the Heller decision on the gun debate is fully felt. The NRA has shown remarkable skill so far in convincing gun owners that President Obama is plotting to get their guns, even though, in his first year in office the President earned a grade of “F” from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence by doing nothing to put our nation on the path to common sense gun laws, and even signing into law several pieces of NRA-supported legislation. But when someone like Frank Luntz, who was seated in the front row as the President recently sparred with House Republicans, is ready to proclaim that “the culture war over guns is more myth than reality,” there is reason to believe that Heller’s potential to reframe the gun issue may be realized.


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