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Column: Guns and the soul of America

The expansion of gun rights is directly related to the epidemic of mass shootings

By David Brooks

New York Times News Service

Published on October 9, 2017 12:01AM

Manuela Barela passes crosses set up to honor those killed during the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

Manuela Barela passes crosses set up to honor those killed during the mass shooting in Las Vegas.


The pattern is by now numbingly familiar. A lone lunatic murders a mass of innocent people in some public location. There is a heartfelt cry for tighter control on gun ownership. Then state legislatures swing into action. They pass a series of laws loosening controls on gun ownership.

As David Frum points out in The Atlantic, the five years since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School “have seen one of the most intense bursts of gun legislation in U.S. history.” More than two dozen states have passed new gun laws. And in almost all cases these laws have made it easier to buy or carry guns.

Wisconsin eliminated its 48-hour waiting period to buy handguns. Ohio allowed concealed-carry weapons to be brought into day care facilities and airports. Florida changed its “stand your ground” law to make it harder to prosecute gun owners.

The expansion of gun rights is directly related to the epidemic of mass shootings. A study by Michael Luca, Deepak Malhotra and Christopher Poliquin of Harvard Business School found that a single mass shooting leads to a 15 percent increase in firearm bills introduced in the same state’s legislature within a year.

In Republican states, they found, a mass killing “increases the number of enacted laws that loosen gun restrictions by 75 percent.” In Democratic states, mass shootings have no significant effect on laws passed.

So why are lawmakers responding to mass killings by loosening gun laws? The wrong answer is that the NRA is this maliciously powerful force that controls legislators through campaign dollars. In fact, the NRA spends a minuscule amount on campaign contributions compared with the vast oceans of dough washing through our politics.

The reality is that in some places people want these laws. It’s true that individual gun control measures — like banning bump stocks — have popular support, but overall, the gun rights people are winning the hearts and minds of America. In 2000, according to a Pew survey, only 29 percent of Americans supported more gun rights and 67 percent supported more gun control. By 2016, 52 percent of Americans supported more gun rights and only 46 percent supported more control.

This gigantic shift in public opinion hasn’t come about because the facts support the gun rights position. The research doesn’t overwhelmingly support either side. Gun control proposals don’t seriously impinge freedom; on the other hand, there’s not much evidence that they would prevent many attacks.

Besides, better facts tend to be counterproductive on hot-button issues like gun control. As Tali Sharot notes in her book “The Influential Mind,” when you present people with evidence that goes against their deeply held beliefs, the evidence doesn’t sway them. Instead, they invent more reasons their prior position was actually correct. The smarter a person is, the greater his or her ability to rationalize and reinterpret discordant information, and the greater the polarizing boomerang effect is likely to be.

The real reason the gun rights side is winning is postindustrialization. The gun issue has become an epiphenomenon of a much larger conflict over values and identity.

A century ago, the forces of industrialization swept over agricultural America, and monetary policy became the proxy fight in that larger conflict. Today, people in agricultural and industrial America legitimately feel that their way of life is being threatened by postindustrial society. The members of this resistance have seized on issues like guns, immigration, the flag as places to mobilize their counterassault. Guns are a proxy for larger issues.

Four in 10 American households own guns. As Hahrie Han, a political science professor, noted in The Times Wednesday, there are more gun clubs and gun shops in this country than McDonald’s. For many people, the gun is a way to protect against crime. But it is also an identity marker. It stands for freedom, self-reliance and the ability to control your own destiny. Gun rights are about living in a country where families are tough enough and responsible enough to stand up for themselves in a dangerous world.

The populist revolt is about halfway through taking over the Republican Party. It is winning victories on gun, immigration and trade policy. The way to fuel this populism is to feed the elites-versus-common-man narrative, as so many have self-righteously done this week.

The only way to make progress on guns control is to forge some sort of synthesis on the larger postindustrialization/populism war. Over a century ago, industrialization brought on a culture clash between agrarian populists and the genteel Victorian aristocrats. Theodore Roosevelt transcended the fight by inventing a new American nationalism. Meanwhile, the progressives cleaned up elite corruption and nurtured a square deal for those being left behind by technological change. Cultural leaders introduced new institutions and community forms, like the Boy Scouts and the Settlement House, that drew from both cultures and replaced them.

Today we need another grand synthesis that can move us beyond the current divide, a synthesis that is neither redneck nor hipster but draws from both worlds to create a new social vision. Progress on guns will be possible when the culture war subsides, but not before.



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