For decades, pro-gun activists have held new safety restrictions at bay with the argument that they would unfairly punish law-abiding citizens who responsibly own firearms.
Advocates promote anecdotes of guns being used to thwart home invasions and protect residents in the critical time before police arrive. They argue that the underlying cause of mass shootings is mental health issues and that criminals brandishing illegal guns are to blame for killings and robberies on city streets and that more guns, owned by trustworthy parties, will offset those dangers.
But as gun control returns to the public agenda, a series of shootings last month that saw several young people injured and one killed by gun owners who thought they were acting in self-defense has undermined the narrative that more weapons are the answer.
“We’re not talking about folks who are trained professionals. And that can lead to issues, I think, and these kinds of events make that clear,” says Matthew Lacombe, an associate professor of political science at Case Western University who specializes in gun politics, the NRA and political ideology.
Experts and gun-control advocates point to the shootings as evidence of the flimsiness of arguments made by gun rights activists, conservatives and the National Rifle Association that equate widespread, legal gun ownership to increased personal and public safety.
Mass shootings – including school shootings like the massacre at a Tennessee Christian school in March and Saturday’s massacre at an Allen, Texas, outlet mall – often reignite a national debate over gun laws. Pro-gun activists have argued that the solution to mass shootings is better mental health care and armed officers in every school.
“With so much violence taking place at the hands of those struggling with serious mental illness, the answer to mass shootings is not fewer guns, it’s more institutions for the mentally ill,” former Vice President Mike Pence said in a speech at the NRA annual meeting earlier in April – a sentiment echoed by many others, including former President Donald Trump, who is considered the current front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Pence also pushed for funding “to place armed resource officers in every public and private school in America,” as did other Republican speakers at the meeting.
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The proposal speaks to gun rights activists’ catchphrase that a “good guy with a gun” is the only way to stop a “bad guy with a gun” – which fits neatly into their broader argument that a society with more law-abiding gun owners is a freer, safer one.
But even that argument is tested when looking at the recent Texas shooting, in which a lone gunman killed seven people in the middle of the afternoon, critics say. Texas introduced permitless carry in 2021, allowing citizens to carry handguns in public spaces without a permit, training or background check. But a police officer eventually stopped the shooter – not an everyday citizen with a weapon.
And it didn’t hold almost a year ago in Buffalo, on May 16, 2022, where an armed, off-duty security guard and former police officer were unable to stop a shooter on an apparent racist rampage. The security guard, along with nine Black supermarket shoppers, was killed.
In fact, the FBI said in a long-trend report that from 2000 through 2019, only four times did armed citizens kill any of 345 active shooters.
And gun rights groups’ arguments also don’t work nearly as well in the face of the April shootings, which made headlines not for the number of victims – as with mass shootings – but for the mundanity of the victims’ actions: Ralph Yarl, a Black teenager was shot by an octogenarian homeowner after he accidentally went to the wrong house to pick up siblings, a pair of teenage cheerleaders were shot after one of them had erroneously gotten into the wrong vehicle, and a man fired on a car full of young people that mistakenly turned into his driveway while looking for another house. One of the women in that car died.
Events like the shootings can cause people who don’t have strong opinions on guns or who see merit in aspects of arguments for both greater gun rights and greater gun control measures to reevaluate, Lacombe says.
“I think that might cause them to realize or to come to the conclusion that the NRA vision for things actually doesn’t make people safer, and that even folks who think of themselves as ‘good guys with guns’ – as surely the perpetrators in the past week did – might end up taking actions that are quite bad because, as it turns out, it’s pretty hard to accurately assess different levels of threats,” he says.
Pro-gun activists – including the political powerhouse NRA – have pushed for so-called “stand your ground” laws that expand protections around the use of force for self-defense. The same groups also advocated for permitless, sometimes called “constitutional carry.” In April, Florida became the 26th state to adopt “constitutional carry” when the bill was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is gearing up for a run at the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
Gun violence prevention activists argue that the proliferation of guns – and especially the unregulated proliferation of guns – will lead to greater gun violence, even if the firearms were obtained legally by people who did not have malicious intentions.
“The NRA further has been pushing and calling for right guns everywhere for everyone – for them to be allowed and permitted in any space, and for individuals to have them loaded and ready to use,” says Christian Hayne, vice president of policy and programs at Brady, an influential gun violence prevention group. “And, you know, I think that if more guns truly meant less gun violence, we would be the safest country in the free world.”
The NRA Institute for Legislative Action did not respond to a request for comment.
Pro-gun groups argue that gun control restrictions trod on the constitutional rights of Americans and will disproportionately impact “law-abiding gun owners,” leaving them open to threats from criminals who obtain their firearms illegally.
“We don’t need lectures about the liberties of law-abiding citizens. We need solutions to protect our kids,” Pence said at the NRA meeting.
Michael Lawlor, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven and a former Democratic member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, says there is a key difference between “responsible” and “law-abiding” gun owners that pro-gun groups hold up as the answer to criminal violence.
“The country is flooded with guns, and in my view the main problem is there’s way more guns in circulation than there are responsible gun owners – responsible being different from law-abiding,” says Lawlor, who served as Connecticut’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and has a special interest in firearm policy.
“The goal of public policy should be to narrow that gap. That’s all. No one’s proposed confiscating all guns or even repealing the Second Amendment but that there is some sensible middle ground between a complete ban on all guns and the current policy in most states, which is do whatever you want to do – you don’t need a permit, you don’t need training, you don’t need a background check. Just have a ball,” he says.
As the primary season for the 2024 election gets underway, GOP candidates and their allies are already featuring crime and gun rights prominently in their campaigns.
While the messaging may prove effective with primary audiences, pro-gun advocates are facing an uphill battle with the general population because their opposition to expanded gun control measures runs counter to the views of the majority of Americans, polling shows.
As a result, gun rights and gun control have become a point of vulnerability for Republicans among the general electorate, especially amid the relentless pace of mass shootings, including school shootings.
A Fox News poll conducted in mid-April found that 87% of registered voters support requiring criminal background checks on all gun buyers, including those buying at gun shows and private sales, while another 80% support requiring mental health checks on all gun buyers. Seventy-seven percent of people also back a 30-day waiting period for all gun purchases.
And on the flip side, a majority of voters – 52% – oppose encouraging more citizens to carry guns to “defend against attackers.”