Viewpoint: If We Want Gun Control, We’ll Need to Compromise

Americans have reached "tipping points" before, but those who want stronger gun laws need to appeal to the broad middle of the nation

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Mike Segar / Reuters

Wooden angel figures stand in a wooded area near Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 16, 2012, to honor the victims of the school shooting

In the wake of the heartbreaking mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, supporters of gun control have argued that the attack should be a turning point in galvanizing popular opinion against guns — and producing strong gun-control legislation.

President Obama declared Saturday that “we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action” — though he did not provide details. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said that when Congress returns she will introduce a bill to restore the assault-weapons ban. Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said on Face the Nation on Sunday that “we could be at a tipping point” on gun-control legislation.

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If any crime could usher in a new gun-control regime, last week’s slaughter of 20 6- and 7-year-olds should. But will it? Not likely. The same “tipping points” have presented themselves after previous mass shootings, but little progress has been made. Instead of continuing to act as if the nation is poised to reject guns, advocates for gun control should switch tactics. They should accept the reality that support for guns remains strong and work for a bipartisan “grand compromise” that offers gun owners substantive benefits in exchange for reasonable gun restrictions.

The U.S. has been confronted with a lot of horrific gun violence in recent years: the 32 killed at Virginia Tech in 2007; the 13 killed at Texas’ Fort Hood in 2009; the attack last year on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords that left six people dead, including a federal judge; the 12 people killed in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater this year. But as mass shootings have become more frequent and more deadly, popular opinion has been moving steadily in favor of greater gun rights. In 1993, a Pew Research Center poll found that support for gun control overpowered support for gun rights by 57% to 34%. By this year, the margin had fallen to 47% to 46%. This support for guns is not just abstract: the FBI has logged a record 16.8 million background checks for gun purchases this year.

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All of which makes the National Rifle Association’s goal of blocking gun-control laws a lot easier. It’s still possible that last week’s attack will swing popular opinion so strongly against guns that the NRA is powerless to stand in the way, but the odds are against it. Given that, the best chance for stronger laws would be for gun-control advocates to work with moderate members of the gun-owning community and come up with a grand-compromise gun bill. That means a bill that does not demonize guns but instead seeks to build a consensus in favor of prudent gun use.

A key to such a compromise would be trying to win the support of hunters by offering a bill that is respectful of gun traditions — to undercut the NRA’s often effective claim that “they are coming after your guns.” The compromise bill should also offer law-abiding sportsmen and sportswomen tangible improvements in the law — ones that do not increase the chances of mass shootings. The bill could expand the right to hunt certain nonendangered species in particular places and times. It could streamline some of the unnecessary red tape that hunters complain about in getting licenses. The drafters should look at other items on hunters’ legislative wish list, like excluding ammunition and fishing tackle from the Toxic Substances Control Act.

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In exchange for these substantive benefits, moderate gun owners should be willing to go along with important gun-control provisions that are not aimed at them. These could include the top items on the gun-control agenda: the assault-weapons ban, tougher background checks on gun purchasers, and stricter penalties for “straw purchasers” who illegally buy guns for people who should not have them.

Some supporters of gun control have been noting triumphantly that the NRA has laid low since Friday’s shooting — and that according to host David Gregory, no pro-gun Senators agreed to go on Meet the Press on Sunday. But this is what the gun lobby does after a mass shooting — it would be a mistake to believe that they are going away.

It’s tempting to engage in anti-gun polemics and hope that popular opinion will dramatically shift, but it is also likely a mistake. The smarter course for those who want stronger federal gun-control laws anytime soon is legislative stewardship and compromise. The best way to get the job done is to craft a law that appeals to the broad middle of the nation, pull in as many pro-gun moderates as possible, and marginalize the NRA and other anti-gun-control extremists.

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