Skip to main content

Gun control is not a cultural battle

By Daniel Webster
December 14, 2013 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
Police officers walk on a rooftop at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, September 16, after a <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/16/us/dc-navy-yard-gunshots/index.html'>shooting rampage</a> in the nation's capital. At least 12 people and suspect Aaron Alexis were killed, according to authorities. Police officers walk on a rooftop at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, September 16, after a shooting rampage in the nation's capital. At least 12 people and suspect Aaron Alexis were killed, according to authorities.
HIDE CAPTION
Worst mass shootings in U.S.
Worst mass shootings in the U.S.
Worst mass shootings in the U.S.
Worst mass shootings in the U.S.
Worst mass shootings in the U.S.
Worst mass shootings in the U.S.
Worst mass shootings in the U.S.
Worst mass shootings in the U.S.
Worst mass shootings in the U.S.
Worst mass shootings in the U.S.
Worst mass shootings in the U.S.
Worst mass shootings in the U.S.
Worst mass shootings in the U.S.
Worst mass shootings in the U.S.
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • On the eve of Newtown massacre anniversary, there's a school shooting in Colorado
  • Daniel Webster: Lax gun laws allow dangerous people easy access to guns
  • He says we must stop treating this as a cultural battle; it is a public safety problem
  • Webster: Even gun owners and NRA members support background checks

Editor's note: Daniel Webster is director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

(CNN) -- On the eve of the anniversary of the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, yet another shooting broke out Friday -- this time in a high school in the suburbs of Denver. A few people were reported injured, so far, while the gunman took his own life, police said. And once again, an American community reels -- bewildered that such violence could occur among its young people.

While the vast majority of youth murdered in the U.S. are gunned down in the street, school shootings that are rare in other countries occur far too frequently in America.

The U.S. does not have unusually high rates of crime, violent behavior or mental illness compared with other high-income countries; but our rate of homicide with firearms is nearly 20 times higher. Lax gun laws that allow dangerous people easy access to guns plays an important role in this disparity.

Daniel W. Webster
Daniel W. Webster

There was reason to believe that Congress would be forced to put public safety interests ahead of the special interests of the gun lobby after 20 young children and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School a year ago.

Public opinion surveys showed near unanimous support for expanding background checks and broad support for other measures to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Grass roots movements including parents and faith-based groups mobilized to advocate for stronger gun laws.

For the most part, Congress once again caved to the gun lobby.

However, 15 states plus the District of Columbia, accounting for roughly 44% of the U.S. population, strengthened their gun laws in 2013. Eight of these states, including Colorado, Delaware and Illinois, made fairly substantial changes by enacting background-check requirements for all handgun sales. Maryland adopted a licensing system for handgun purchasers and stronger regulation of gun dealers. California, Connecticut and Maryland expanded firearm prohibitions for high-risk individuals.

Student: We heard a bang, then two more
Connecticut State Police officers search outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut, on Sunday, December 16, after a threat prompted authorities to evacuate the building. Investigators found nothing to substantiate the reported threat, a police official said, declining to provide additional details. The church held Sunday services following last week's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Connecticut State Police officers search outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut, on Sunday, December 16, after a threat prompted authorities to evacuate the building. Investigators found nothing to substantiate the reported threat, a police official said, declining to provide additional details. The church held Sunday services following last week's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Connecticut school shooting
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Connecticut school shooting Photos: Connecticut school shooting

Moreover, the Obama administration took action on many relevant executive orders. A director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has finally been confirmed by the Senate. Federal agencies are funding research on gun violence.

But widespread gun trafficking from states with weak gun laws to states with stronger laws underscores the need for better federal laws. Congress will likely act only when more gun owners who support policies to keep guns from dangerous people become engaged on the issue.

In a large national survey my colleagues and I conducted in January 2013, 84% of gun owners and 74% of National Rifle Association members supported background checks for all gun sales. Other surveys show similar findings.

What is keeping so many gun owners on the sidelines? One likely impediment is the way the issue has been cast as a cultural battle as opposed to a public safety problem. Another may be gun owners' susceptibility to the gun lobby's bogus talking points.

The frame for this cultural battle is not accidental. Pushed by the gun lobby and fanned by news media's tendency to highlight conflict, widely favored, commonsense safety measures such as background checks are portrayed as attacks on gun owners' way of life. The gun lobby's claims that background checks restrict gun ownership and lead to gun registries and confiscations are repeated and often left unchallenged.

When you hear something enough times, you begin to think it's true. And that's exactly the intent of the NRA and other groups.

Here's the reality check: Background checks pose no threat to lawful gun ownership.

Federal law forbids the federal government from maintaining anything resembling a registry of gun owners. Federal law has mandated background checks for guns sold by licensed gun dealers since 1994 without creating a registry. Exempting private gun transactions from background check requirements facilitates gun trafficking. Fixing this fatal flaw in the system would curtail the diversion of guns to criminals.

In the year since the tragedy in Newtown, it is likely that more than 12,000 Americans have died of gun violence and countless others live in fear of being shot. We should stick to facts, dispel myths, and call a truce to cultural battles.

Current federal gun laws aid criminals and the gun industry at the expense of public safety. Requiring background checks for all gun sales would give the vast majority of gun owners what they want while keeping guns from those who shouldn't have them.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Webster.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT