A Loaded Subject: Guns, and What to Do About Them

Smith & Wession M&P Victory model revolver.
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There are few subjects more divisive in the U.S. than the millions of guns owned privately — they’re found in about 30 percent of American homes — and how to quell or reduce the annual toll this exacts, about 30,000 deaths a year, 55 percent of those suicide.

There are millions of people whose firearms will never injure or kill anyone, and others whose gun or guns, sometimes without their knowledge or permission, will cause mayhem and havoc, whether stolen, re-sold to a criminal, used in the commission of another crime. Given the incredibly wide range of experiences Americans have of guns — your child is shot in a drive-by, your husband commits suicide, your daughter thrives in her 4H shooting program, your son attends college on an NCAA riflery scholarship, your family relies for meat on the deer or game you shoot, you’ve only seen one on a cop’s hip or in a movie — it can feel as though any sort of productive dialogue on reducing suicide and homicide is futile. Some hunters wonder why this is their problem. Traumatized victims of urban gun violence wonder why it’s not.

On Monday, I visited a Manhattan apartment where I met about 20 men and women who support the work of the president and CEO of the Brady Campaign, Paul Helmke, who spoke to them about what he’s doing, the challenges he faces and the progress he feels the group has made. He and I had never met before, although we’d both been interviewed earlier this year about gun issues on The Brian Lehrer Show, a popular WNYC daily talk show. I was impressed then by his remarks and approach, and was honored to be invited to attend this private off-the-record gathering;  I asked, and received, their permission beforehand to blog about it.

There were three people in the room who had lost loved ones to gun violence. There was Dennis Henigan, vice president for law and policy with the group, who talked about his new book. I was struck by how calm and thoughtful everyone was and the quiet sense of unity, but also by the daunting prospect of fighting back against what those in the room feel is a Congress often swayed by the arguments of the NRA. Henigan I spoke briefly, and agreed that there are very few books that thoughtfully try to untangle the myths and issues surrounding firearms without dogma. Tenured academics, arguably the best placed to dispassionately examine tough issues, rarely touch the subject, for the very real fear of tainting their future prospects and credibility with their peers. I once watched, in horrified amusement, one such writer’s work repeatedly shredded by a group of high-powered professors at a major academic conference on this issue.

The Brady Campaign, as I noted in my own book about guns, has always faced a few specific challenges and these have not changed over the years.

They need more money. They need more staff. They need a focused, loud, clear message made over and over and over, a message — the room told Helmke — that really resonates on an emotional level, not just one more set of statistics. One problem, said Helmke, former 12-year mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana and a Yale law school graduate, is that everyone is persuaded differently: some want anecdotes, some want emotion, some want facts and figures. Politicians, he said, will pay very close attention to your concerns when you write them a check and make clear what you specifically want them to focus on. Tell them this is your number one issue, he advised.

One of the challenges for those who want to fight gun violence, openly acknowledged at this meeting, is that there are many such groups, from the Million Mom March to Pax to Handgun Control Inc. to the Violence Policy Center to the Brady Campaign. Each has its own message, and voters and donors can get confused, overwhelmed or tune out. The NRA stays on-message and speaks with a loud, clear voice. If you don’t know about it, it’s instructive to read about their ILA, The Institute for Legislative Action. The NRA is also extremely effective at raising money. Almost daily, somewhere in the country, there is a breakfast, lunch, dinner or event raising funds for them and their staff — which numbered 500, with a budget of $20 million, when I wrote my book in 2004. This morning, I used their website’s feature, typing in my zip code, to find the next two Friends of the NRA dinners near me, one in September and one in October. And I live in a distinctly gun-averse region, suburban New York.

The NRA never stops campaigning. And they are highly persuasive. The Brady Campaign’s challenge, as always, is matching that.

Here are some CDC stats on firearm deaths. A few are really surprising.

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