Skip to main content

Fear drives opposition to gun control

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
July 30, 2012 -- Updated 1647 GMT (0047 HKT)
Hand guns are displayed at a firing range July 22, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado.
Hand guns are displayed at a firing range July 22, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum says public support for stricter gun control has steadily waned
  • Despite gun views, fewer Americans today keep a gun in their home, he says
  • Frum says people realize that gun ownership is risky to themselves and their families
  • Frum: Local TV news overplays violence, drives up fear, keeps people focused on gun rights

Editor's note: David Frum is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast and a CNN contributor. He is the author of seven books, including a new novel, "Patriots."

(CNN) -- There will be no new gun laws after the Aurora shooting for the basic reason that the American people do not want them.

Over the past 20 years, support for gun control has collapsed in the United States.

Three-quarters of Americans want to keep the right to own handguns, weapons whose only function is to kill human beings at close range. In 1959, 60% of Americans wanted handguns banned outright for all but police officers.

Little to gain, lots to lose for Obama and Romney on guns

David Frum
David Frum

Responding to public opinion, states have loosened gun laws to allow citizens to carry weapons with them almost anywhere they go. In Georgia, Arizona, Tennessee and Virginia, it's legal to carry a gun into a bar. Guns and booze: What could go wrong?

But here's the odd thing: At the same time as Americans have become more enthusiastic about gun rights, fewer and fewer Americans actually want to own a gun themselves.

In the 1990s, the proportion of Americans who kept a gun in the home tumbled from one-half to one-third. And while gun ownership has risen in the Obama years, it remains lower than in the 1960s when strong majorities of the American people demanded stricter laws.

How can we make sense of this weird divergence between beliefs and behavior?

No gun law changes likely after shooting
When should we debate gun control?
Va. Senate candidates debate gun control
Bloomberg blasts politics on guns

Americans support gun rights because they believe guns are necessary for self-protection. As the Georgia lawmaker who introduced the law allowing guns to be carried in bars explained:

"Folks were being robbed, assaulted -- it was becoming an issue of personal safety. The police aren't going to be able to protect you. They're going to be checking out the crime scene after you and your family's been shot or injured or assaulted or raped."

At the same time, people hesitate to own guns themselves because they recognize that keeping a gun in the house is a dangerous thing to do. A gun in the house minimally doubles the risk that a household member will kill himself or herself. (Some studies put the increase in suicide risk as high as 10 times.) An American is 50% more likely to be shot dead by his or her own hand than to be shot dead by a criminal assailant. More than 30,000 Americans injure themselves with guns every year.

The good news is that as America becomes safer, fewer and fewer Americans feel the need for a weapon. The overall violent crime index has tumbled by one-third since the early 1990s. The worst crimes -- murder and rape -- have declined even more. American citizens are safer today from crime than at almost any time since record-keeping began, very likely safer than at any time in the history of the country.

Americans perceive these improvements in the safety of their immediate neighborhood. Back in the early 1980s, half of Americans said they feared to walk alone at night near their own homes. By the early 2000s, only one-third expressed such fears. (Those fears have ticked up a little in the last few years, even as crime rates continue to fall, but again they remain way below historic peaks.)

Yet unfortunately, Americans are not, however, nearly so accurate at assessing national trends. In the mid-2000s, when crime rates were declining fast, almost 70% of Americans wrongly said that crime rates had risen over the past year.

Analysis: Why gun controls are off the agenda in America

What force on earth could convince Americans that down is up? The most powerful force of all: television.

TV news -- and especially local TV news -- is dominated by news of violent crime, the more spectacular and murderous the better. TV news creates a false picture of a country under attack by rampaging criminals, and especially nonwhite criminals. The people who watch the most TV news, Americans older than 50, also happen to be the group most likely to own a gun.

Only one-fifth of young Americans own a gun; one-third of over-50 Americans do. Republicans are twice as likely to own a gun as Democrats. Maybe not so coincidentally, Republicans are more likely to watch the scariest news channel of them all: Fox. Whites are twice as likely to own a gun as nonwhites -- and it may also not be a coincidence that gun purchases have suddenly spiked since November 2008.

Proponents of gun control are baffled that horrific massacres such as the one in Aurora, Colorado, do not lead to stricter gun control. They have their causation backward.

The more terrifyingly criminal the world looks, the more ineffective law enforcement seems, the more Americans demand the right to deadly weapons with which to defend themselves. It is local TV programming directors, not the National Rifle Association, who are tirelessly persuading Americans that they need to strap a gun to their legs before heading to the mall.

And what will change those attitudes is not more atrocity stories, but instead the reassuring truth: The United States is safe and getting safer, safer than ever before in its history.

The police can protect you, and will, and do. And a gun in the house is not a guarantee of personal security -- it is instead a standing invitation to family tragedy. The cold dead hands from which they pry the gun are very unlikely to be the hands of a heroic minuteman defending home and hearth against intruders. They are much more likely to be the hands of a troubled adolescent or a clumsy child.

In the land of the Second Amendment, nobody will take your guns away. But if you love your children, you should get rid of them voluntarily.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT