Twenty years ago, a blip of a debate surfaced among the camps of the gun lobby regarding legislation in Olympia.
Boiled down, it went like this: Should we agree to middle-ground, widely supported safety provisions in the face of great public concern over gun violence, or take a hard line instead and refuse to give an inch, ever, about anything?
One voice of tactical moderation was Seattle author and gun-rights activist Alan Gottlieb. Gottlieb, who testifies regularly against gun legislation on behalf of the Second Amendment Foundation, warned at the time that the refusal to compromise when child safety was at stake would be politically disastrous for gun-rights advocates.
In particular, he argued in support of safe-storage legislation proposed in 1997 in the Washington Legislature that would have required gun owners to lock up their weapons and penalized them if their unsecured guns were used to harm someone.
Gottlieb feared that gun advocates could lose the larger battle by refusing to give ground in the skirmishes.
“If you don’t agree with me,” Gottlieb wrote in an editorial in Women & Guns magazine, “then point your loaded gun at your foot and pull the trigger.”
Spoiler alert: The hard line won, scorched earth replaced common ground, and Gottlieb’s prediction did not come true.
Recently, though, it seems as if maybe it just hasn’t come true yet.
National gun politics sometimes appear to have hardened into a state of permanent inaction on gun safety, on choking off access to the most lethal weapons for would-be murders, on expanding the ability to act on red flags and on funding serious research about gun violence.
But as we approach a week in which teens are expected to march out of class to demand action on gun violence, a time in which the fury and passion of young people have reminded us that the system is deeply sick and broken, a time when some large corporations and organizations are beginning to disassociate from the NRA, a time in which even Florida is passing legislation against the wishes of gun absolutists, the premise Gottlieb’s argument is more relevant than ever.
A wave of public fury is crashing into the gun lobby’s Maginot Line. If that wave is passionate and intractable, well, those are the terms of battle established by the people who’ve been winning it so far. But there are more people in the wave than behind the line, and in representative democracies, as Gottlieb noted way back when, more people usually, eventually, win.
On issue after issue, from background checks to assault weapons to bump stocks, most Americans have parted ways with Congress and the intransigent gun lobby. A minority view, even one with vast resources of passion, cash and slavish devotion, cannot hold out against everyone else forever. The real Maginot Line – the failed French defenses against German invasion in the 1930s – only seemed impermeable.
I tried to contact Gottlieb to talk about this, but he did not return email or phone messages seeking comment. His opinion piece in 1997 was argued strategically, not morally. He essentially suggested that, since supporters of gun control eventually want to take everyone’s guns away, gun advocates have to take pains to seem to care just as much about child safety as the “gun grabbers” do.
“If we allow our enemies to hijack the issue of child safety,” he wrote, “we put ourselves on the losing side of a battle that could decide the war.”
Gottlieb wrote that gun owners should support legislation that would penalize someone who let an unsecured weapon fall into the wrong hands and be used to kill or commit a crime. Doing so, he suggested, would really get those gun grabbers’ goats.
“Gun owner support for reasonable legislation like this bill forces gun grabber organizations to go along with legislation which they privately believe is far too non-restrictive or be revealed in public as the irrational extremists that they really are,” he said.
It was a funny kind of call for compromise – hostile, paranoid, conspiracy-minded. Even so, it was too much for his fellow travelers.
A Pennsylvania gun activist, Andy Barniskis, penned a rejoinder. He argued that gun grabbers will never rest, will relentlessly come for people’s guns and try to wear gun owners down by degrees, that safe storage itself was kind of a con – if there was a problem with unsafe gun storage, he wrote, it was only an inner-city problem, because most gun owners (read: white gun owners) already handle their guns safely.
He used the example of ever-more-restrictive seat belt laws as a comparison. Once people started seeing positive effects from seat belt laws, he argued, the cattle were really out of the barn. Seat belt laws became common, and people were at risk of trying to protect children in other ways, too.
(Among the more striking aspects of this back-and-forth was the scornful dismissal of the desire for children not to die unnecessarily; this desire is always seen by gun zealots as suspect, as politically motivated, as immature, as “emotional,” as insincere. It is a foundational premise – if someone says they want to stop kids from being shot at school, they must have a nefarious ulterior motive.)
Gottlieb did not get his way back then. Safe-storage laws are continual nonstarters in Olympia. They are proposed every year and go nowhere, though large majorities of Americans support the idea in polling. Even this year, as the Democratic majority tries to pick some of the low-hanging fruit on gun safety, a safe-storage proposal perished.
It’s tempting to say Gottlieb was wrong. Refusing to give an inch has worked out distressingly well for the gun lobby so far.
But maybe, if you take the hopeful long view, he was right, and the self-inflicted wound is starting to appear.
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