Good Ratings ≠ Good Debate

“Looking back, it’s bananas that anyone included the Tobacco Institute in public health debates.”

While I stand firmly in the camp of gun control, I understand (some) of the reasons why others may want to own guns. However, it is bananas that when gun control debates are presented on television, they’re presented generally between victims of gun violence or advocates against gun violence and a lobbying group for guns. This skewed presentation of opinion influences the way people perceive the debate on gun control. How many times have you faced someone on the opposite side of an issue and felt like there was no possible middle ground?

Americans, including gun owners, have different opinions from the NRA! In fact, the majority of Americans are in favor of common sense gun control measures.

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60% of people polled said they supported more strict laws about firearm sales in October 2017 (From Gallup)

Much like public opinion on abortion, public opinion on gun control is more nuanced than than it is presented in the news. And it’s changed through time!

Going back to the comparison of the tobacco lobby and public health debates on smoking, public opinion and knowledge about the harms caused by smoking changed as people’s awareness changed. I think it is helpful to think about the (former) power of the tobacco lobby when thinking about the current power of the gun lobby because these things do change in time, but there are some key cultural and demographic differences. From a Harvard Political Review article:

In contrast to tobacco—which was used across all of America by all Americans—only a certain subset of Americans owns guns and cares about gun rights. The majority of gun owners fall within specific demographic categories. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center Study white Americans are much more likely to own a gun than Americans of other races… Overall, 61 percent of all gun owners are white men, who comprise just 32 percent of the general population. Gun rights advocates tend to be conservative and vote Republican… Guns don’t cut across socioeconomic, gender, and racial boundaries like tobacco did before 1964; rather, they exist within demographic boundaries.

Unlike tobacco, where the relationship between use and harm was unknown, there are readily available studies linking guns to homicides and violence. Studies have proven a nearly linear relationship between the level of gun ownership and a number of gun deaths…

There is an abundance of material to shock gun owners in the same way that smokers were jolted, revealing the damage that guns can cause… Between 1966 to 2012, nearly a third of the worlds’ mass shootings occurred in the United States, a country with just 5 percent of the world’s population…  gun-owners cannot be shocked like smokers were. The equivalent of the Surgeon General’s report—the mass shootings and research—have only caused gun owners to dig in their heels further.

The interpretation of the second amendment that is currently championed by the NRA and many people who are against gun control reform is also relatively new. Legal interpretations of the Second Amendment have changed, and the culture of gun ownership has as well. The Harvard Political Review article also explains [Emphasis mine]:

Prior to the late twentieth century, the Second Amendment was never interpreted as conferring an individual right to bear arms, but rather the right to keep a well-regulated militia. From 1888 to 1959 not a single law articlewas passed advocating such a right. However, in the 1970s, libertarian scholars, often funded by the NRA, began a revisionist history on the Second Amendment, publishing troves of articles arguing that it conferred an individual right to bear arms. Public opinion followed. According to a Gallup Poll, by 2008, 73 percent of Americans believed that the Second Amendment “’guaranteed the rights of Americans to own guns’ outside a militia.” That same year, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court agreed.

The power of the NRA to spend money on political campaigns and advertising also cannot be ignored. Their power to use the media and control how politicians feel obligated to vote is influenced by their spending, and in turn, their priorities are reflected in the way laws are created (or not created), even though their opinions do not match those of the general public. 

Since the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, special interests like the NRA have been able to flood our elections with money. It’s given them outsized influence and taken the voice away from the American people, who overwhelmingly support commonsense gun safety measures, such as comprehensive background checks or blocking terrorists from buying guns.

The NRA’s political spending has tripled since the Citizens United decision in 2010. In 2014 alone, the NRA spent nearly $30 million to influence elections.

Worse, Citizens United has allowed a handful of billionaires to funnel millions of dollars to groups like the NRA for them to spend in elections. For example, the Koch brothers’ network has given the NRA more than $10 million since 2010.

When lobbies like the NRA have that much power, what is the point of allowing them to debate on national television? Their priorities are connected to their financial interests, not the interests of real citizens.

If we want to experience real debates between people on opposite sides of issues, particularly when they are public health issues, we should stop inviting lobbies to the table and just speak to the people.