Bigotry, Symbolism, and Ideology in the Battle over Gun Control

This article is copyrighted. It was provided by the author, and is distributed with the permission of the author. It can be uploaded to other BBSs as long as it is not altered, and it may be cited as long as credit is given. As per Don Kates' note:

"If you post this, it must indicate that it is a reprint of an article which appears in the 1992 PUBLIC INTEREST LAW REVIEW." So noted.

Bigotry, Symbolism and Ideology in the Battle over Gun Control

Don B. Kates, Jr.

It is a truism that gun owners hysterically oppose controls that are indistinguishable from those they readily accept as applied to automobiles. Yet underlying this irony are crucial differences in the rationale and implications for applying even apparently identical control mechanisms to firearms rather than cars. For example, automobile regulation is not premised on the idea that cars are evils from which any decent person would recoil in horror -- that anyone wanting to possess such an awful thing is atavistic and warped sexually, intellectually, educationally and ethically. Nor are driver licensing and car registration proposed or implemented as ways to radically reduce the availability of cars to ordinary citizens or to secure the ultimate goal of denying cars to all but the military, police and those special individuals whom the military or police select to receive permits.

But those are the terms many prominent and highly articulate "gun control" (more correctly, gun prohibition) advocates have insisted on using over the past three decades in promoting any kind of control proposal -- no matter how moderate and defensible it might be when presented in less pejorative terms. For these advocates, just owning a gun is analogous not to owning a car but to driving it while inebriated. Thus, in 1967 ---- Harris wrote in [or told?] the Chicago Daily News: "The mere possession of a gun is, in itself, an urge to kill, not only by design, but by accident, by madness, by fright, by bravado." Because advocates like Harris regard gun ownership as inherently wrong, banning it does not implicate any issue of freedom of choice. Nor, for the same reason, do they think that the interests and desires of those who own, or want to own, guns are entitled to consideration. "The need that some homeowners and shopkeepers believe they have for weapons to defend themselves," opined the Washington Post in 1972, may be dismissed as representing "the worst instincts in the human character."

The theme of gun ownership as morally illegitimate pervades the control literature. "[G]un lunatics silence [the] sounds of civilization," proclaims ---- Braucher [who is he or she? need some ID] in the Miami Herald.[1] In his syndicated column, Garry Wills, reviles "gun fetishists" and "gun nuts" as "anti- citizens," "traitors, enemies of their own patriae," people arming "against their own neighbors." Historian Richard Hofstadter applies to gun owners D. H. Lawrence's description of "'the essential American soul'" as "'hard, isolate and a killer.'" In his 1971 book, Crime in America, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark decried gun ownership as an insult to the state because "a state in which a citizen needs a gun to protect himself from crime has failed to perform its first purpose" and as a return to barbarism, to "anarchy, not order under law -- a jungle where each relies on himself for survival." An alternative ground of denying that the interests of gun owners deserve respect or consideration has been espoused by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Harriet Van Horne, Rep. Fortney Stark, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Harlan Ellison and others who assert that gun ownership does not involve real choice because it is actually only a preconditioned manifestation of sexual inadequacy or perversion.

The definitive analysis of American gun control literature was conducted for the National Institute of Justice by the Social and Demographic Research Institute. From that literature this study derived the following description of the way those I call "anti-gun" see gun owners -- "demented and blood-thirsty psychopaths whose concept of fun is to rain death on innocent creatures, both human and otherwise."[2] This view of gun owners amounts to bigotry -- it has no empirical support at all.[3] Even so, it has helped inspired a political program that has been articulated by, among others, Michael Dukakis. In 1986, while governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis in effect enunciated the program associated with the anti-gun view: "I do not believe in people owning guns. Guns should be owned or possessed] only [by the] police and military. I am going to do everything I can to disarm this state."

Of course, disarmament is not the only possible control scheme. Nor is it espoused by all gun-control proponents. Nor are the anti-gun views that inform it the only policy basis for gun controls generally. But the anti-gun rhetoric remains the most important feature of the public debate over gun control. For it is the anti-gun rhetoric of so many gun control advocates that plays into the hands of their opponents. The gun lobby has proved effective in using that rhetoric to persuade gun owners that gun control is synonymous with "disarmament," that this is what all proponents of gun control really have in mind when they propose any regulation, and that their agenda is inspired by the conviction that owning a gun is morally wrong.


The public debate over guns in the United States is often seen as having two sides. In fact, there are three. To be sure, the debate is monopolized and its agenda fixed by the conflict between the anti-gun view that dominates the active gun control movement and the pro-gun view that is characterized by hysterical opposition to any additional control proposal, however moderate and reasonable. But the debate's virtual monopolization by these opposing high-decibel extremes obscures the fact that if the adherents on both sides were added together, their combined numbers would not represent more than a small minority of the American public. The vast majority -- including a majority of gun owners -- espouse the markedly different view I call "pro- control." It differs from the anti-gun view in that it recognizes the moral legitimacy of, and accords consideration to, the choice to own guns (particularly for reasons of self- defense). At the same time, unlike the pro-gun view, the "pro- control" view recognizes the need to accommodate the legitimate interests of gun owners to the social imperative to control a dangerous instrumentality.

Unfortunately, the pro-control consensus has been undermined and frustrated as the American gun debate has been dominated over the past quarter-century by extreme views hostile to compromise and accommodation. About half of all American households own guns. So all that the gun lobby needs to do in order to marshal massive opposition against gun control proposals is capitalize on the terms of debate established by anti-gun luminaries. As one analyst notes, exposure to this debate

convinces America's handgun owners that they are a hated minority whose days are numbered by mortal enemies -- enemies who hate them more than crime. With the die cast so, gun owners are made to think that they have everything to lose if those who loath them have any success at all. [Knowing this, the gun lobby actually] disseminate[s] the nastier [anti-gun] cartoons and vituperative op-ed pieces in publications read by gun owners to fan the flames of incipient paranoia.[4]
The last point is both remarkable in itself and telling in its implications: In reprinting anti-gun cartoons the gun lobby is actually paying anti-gun cartoonists royalties for penning those cartoons! This money is well spent. Mobilizing gun owner opposition requires that owners believe that every gun control proposal is bottomed on hatred for them -- that however moderate and reasonable a control may seem, it is actually only a further step toward the hatemongers' ultimate goal of banning and confiscating all guns. Only by thus convincing gun owners can the gun lobby move them to rabidly oppose controls many of which they themselves would, in other circumstances, deem reasonable and sensible. In sum, indispensable to gun lobby success is an anti-gun discourse designed to convince gun owners that "gun control" is not a criminological imperative but a matter of cultural or moral hatred directed at them.

This is the case even though some gun owner response to anti-gun vituperation, which is notoriously counter-productive as political rhetoric, is no less full of hate. Yet in the long run, anti-gun hatefulness is even more counter-productive. In a nation where more than 100 million potential voters live in households with 170-210 million guns, anti-gun advocates create almost insurmountable opposition to controls by presenting them in terms of hatred and contempt for gun owners. Moreover, what anti-gun advocates do by heaping contempt on gun owners is alienate those whose compliance is indispensable if gun laws are to work. The emotional satisfaction anti-gun crusaders evidently find in portraying gun owners as "demented and blood-thirsty psychopaths whose concept of fun is to rain death upon innocent creatures both human and otherwise" must be weighed against the catastrophic effects this has for the cause of gun control.

It is the divisive effect of anti-gun discourse on a pro- control consensus that explains the gun lobby's remarkable ability to defeat new controls.


Fifty years of nationwide polls have documented a virtually universal American consensus for some forms of "gun control."[5] Moreover, polls that isolate gun owners as an opinion group find a majority of them also favor controls, many of which are anathema to the gun lobby. For example, in a poll of gun owners reported by Time in January 1990, some 87 percent supported a waiting period/background check for handgun buyers; 73 percent supported registration of all "semi-automatic weapons"; 72 percent supported registration of all handguns; and 54 percent supported registration of all rifles and 50 percent of all shotguns. Two 1975 Gallup Polls found registration of all guns and a permit requirement for possessing a gun outside the owner's own premises supported by 55 percent and 68 percent of all gun owners (respectively) and by 76 percent and 85 percent of all non-owners (respectively).[6] Thus we have what has aptly been called the "gun control paradox," found in the gun lobby's notorious ability over the years to defeat legislative proposals embodying the consensus favoring controls.

One might quibble with the concept of a "paradox," inasmuch as some of its proponents give credence to polls phrased in terms of public approval of "gun control" -- a term not defined. These polls are meaningless because it is impossible to divine from an affirmative answer whether respondents are expressing support for the approximately 20,000 controls that already exist, or for some undefined additional control, much less any specific kind of new control.

Indicative of the fatuity of these undefined questions is that where polls do focus on specific new control proposals, the most popular is a law requiring that judges give severe prison terms to anyone found guilty of a gun crime. Despite its apparently uniform support across the spectrum of pro-gun, pro- control and anti-gun respondents, this proposal is the "gun control program" of the National Rifle Association. Conversely, regarding the measure that anti-gun advocates deem the primary goal for an acceptable gun control policy -- an absolute ban on handguns -- polls consistently show that less than a majority of the public say they favor the idea.[7]

Nevertheless, it remains true that large majorities of the American populace support a variety of other control proposals that are anathema to the gun lobby. So the "gun control paradox" remains. So does the explanation for the paradox: the divisive effect on a pro-control consensus of a gun "control" movement that is ardently anti-gun. This effect is registered in three ways.

First, the majority of Americans regard self-defense as the most compelling reason to have a gun, but the anti-gun advocate sees that as the most compelling reason to forbid them. Second, the pro-control concept rests on the need for accommodation of the legitimate interests of gun owners to the social imperative of regulating deadly instruments -- but equally basic to the anti-gun concept is that owning a gun is not a legitimate choice and that the interests of those who would make that abhorrent choice do not deserve consideration. Third, pejorative anti-gun advocacy helps the gun lobby convert gun owners from a rational pro-control stance to one of rabid, reflexive opposition at the mere mention of the words "gun control."

One might put forward an alternative explanation of the "gun control paradox" -- one that emphasizes differential levels of commitment between gun control supporters and opponents. Pollster George Gallup has argued that the extreme commitment level of gun owners frightens legislators into seeing gun control as too politically hazardous to embrace: though the great majority of Americans support gun control, few of them are fervent enough to vote against legislators who eschew it; whereas, he writes, citizens

who oppose any kind of gun control laws, though constituting a minority of the public, feel so strongly about this issue that they will do anything they can do to defeat such legislation. As a result they have succeeded in keeping strict gun laws from being adopted in most states and by the federal government.[8]
This thesis incorrectly analyzes the tripartite division of views I have limned by assuming that there are only two -- pro-gun and anti-gun. The conceptual error results in empirical falsification. Research shows that those holding anti-gun views are just as committed (to the point of being "single-issue voters") as are fanatic pro-gunners. Gallup's thesis becomes empirically sustainable only when a third group is recognized -- a pro-control majority less fanatic than either the pro- or anti- gun extremists.

Additional difficulties plague Gallup's explanation for the gun control paradox. In the first place, what does his phrase "strict gun laws" mean? At a very minimum, from the anti-gun position, "strict gun laws" would include a general prohibition on handgun ownership. Yet, as we have seen, polls consistently show that only a minority of the American people support such a prohibition. So there is nothing paradoxical about its non- enactment. A second problem with Gallup's hypothesis is indicated by polls showing that a majority of gun owners also support (at least in theory) controls which the gun lobby has consistently been able to defeat. It is difficult to believe that Congress and state legislators are being bullied by a fanatic minority so small that it does not even include a majority of its own constituency.


Gallup's hypothesis has been directly contradicted by the voting behavior of the American people. Gallup believes that the majoritarian sentiment in favor of controls is frustrated because it has to be implemented by legislators who are personally too timorous to translate it into law. If Gallup is right, it would seem that the voting public would enact "strict gun laws" when asked to do so. But voters have not done that. Consider the overwhelming rejections of sweeping anti-gun initiatives put to the voters in Massachusetts and California in 1976 and 1982, respectively. Moreover, during the past 15 years voters in nine other states have amended their state constitutions to add guarantees to the effect that every responsible, law abiding adult may possess a gun; these include Idaho, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Nevada, West Virginia, Utah, Maine, North Dakota, and Nebraska. Obviously, actual tallies of the electorate provide much better evidence of the views of the electorate (in these states at least) than Gallup's polling of only 500-1,000 citizens who supposedly represent the views of upwards of 215 million potential voters.

The Massachusetts and California initiatives are especially significant because the gun control movement itself chose those states as the ideal places to go on the offensive. Massachusetts and California were chosen because they had exhibited the nation's most "liberal" electoral record and because polls supposedly showed that urban electorates supported outlawing or radically reducing handgun ownership. Of particular significance for the argument here is the pattern of opinion change in both states as the campaign progressed. Polls taken at the outset showed both initiatives winning by roughly the same 65 to 70 percent majorities by which they eventually lost. (Not coincidentally, at the outset the sponsors, particularly in California, sought to present the initiative as a handgun registration measure, downplaying its prohibition of new handgun sales.) Subsequent polls showed support steadily diminishing as the campaign went on. In other words, the more the proposals were debated -- with accompanying exposition of their anti-gun premises -- the more opposition they garnered, until their eventual landslide defeats.

These results dovetail with findings from sophisticated in- depth polls sponsored by both pro- and anti-gun groups (though using different independent polling organizations). Unlike the short Gallup and Harris polls, which miss nuances because the number of questions asked are severely limited, the sponsored polls involve extensive questioning designed to reveal patterns and attitudes. The results are highly consistent, despite the differing wording and antagonistic sponsors. They show that most Americans support permissive controls on guns similar to those now applied to automobiles and driving: a permit system to disarm felons, juveniles and the mentally unstable -- but without denying ordinary, responsible adults the freedom to choose to own guns for family defense.[9]

This analysis -- and the thesis advanced here -- are further confirmed by the gun lobby's defeat in the 1988 Maryland referendum. The referendum's subject was a law passed by the Maryland legislature to prohibit future sales of "Saturday Night Specials." The law incorporated standards expressly defining the only handguns to be banned as being diminutive and too cheap and poorly made to be useful for self-defense or sport. The law created a commission to apply those standards, its membership including representatives of a gun company, pro- and anti-gun groups and law enforcement.

Pro-gun extremists, believing the commission's powers would be abused to outlaw sale of most or all handguns, dragooned a reluctant National Rifle Association into mounting a referendum under Maryland's highly restricted referendum procedure. Far from offering a clear-cut referendum on guns (or just on handguns), the campaign revolved around the fact that the standards embodied in the new law expressly guaranteed every responsible, law abiding adult's freedom to buy any handgun that would be useful for self-defense or sport.

This was confirmed by the denouement (after voters ratified the statute by a 57 to 42 percent margin). Fifteen months later two anti-gun commission members were complaining bitterly that under the standards the commission had been compelled to approve almost 99 percent of handguns submitted to it (10 rejections out of almost 800 models submitted) and that the approved weapons included a 36 shot "assault pistol." Within weeks of their complaint the approved list of handguns had grown to 930, including the Mac-10 and 11 "assault pistols." This was particularly ironic since one complaining commissioner, Baltimore Police Chief Cornelius Behan, had just displayed a Mac-11 in a New York Times ad (sponsored by Handgun Control, Inc.) calling for a federal ban on such guns. Behan and the other commissioners felt compelled to approve the Mac-11 because, as he explained to the Baltimore Sun, the Maryland law "is designed to take out of circulation [only] highly concealable, poorly manufactured, low-caliber weapons. The Mac-10 and 11 unfortunately don't fit into that category."

It typifies the mutually skewed perspectives of pro- and anti-gun advocates that both see the 1988 Maryland referendum as a great anti-gun victory. In fact, the referendum was a pro- control victory -- at the expense of both extremes. Obviously, it was a defeat for the gun lobby's mindless anti-regulatory stance. But for the anti-gun lobby it was a pyrrhic victory attained by implicitly conceding that the public will not accept its views. The fruits of that victory were meager. The commission approved every gun type submitted to it by every major domestic and foreign manufacturer. In the end, about one percent of handgun models representing perhaps .001 percent of the handguns sold annually in the U.S. were disapproved for future sale in Maryland (without affecting either handguns currently owned in the state or long guns at all). The victory itself was attainable only by the ruinous means (for the anti-gun lobby) of embracing a law that expressly rejects both the anti-gun purpose of outlawing handguns and the premises underlying that purpose.


One of those premises is great dubiety about, or even flat rejection of, the legitimacy of self-defense against violence. A half century ago Herbert Wechsler could still justify the legal right of deadly force self-defense in terms of the "universal judgment that there is no social interest in preserving the lives of the aggressors at the cost of those of their victims."[10] That is not a universal judgment today. As of 1985, 13 percent of respondents to a Gallup Poll answered negatively the question, "If the situation arose, would you use deadly force against another person in self-defense?" Presumably some respondents were expressing only their personal repugnance at killing rather than any moral imperative. That this is not the whole explanation is clear from responses to another Gallup question posed at the height of the Bernhard Goetz controversy to two different survey groups a month apart. Of one group, 23 percent of the respondents said that self-defense was "never" justified; of the other, 17 percent gave that response.

No less telling is the language in which the Gallup Poll put the question: "Do you feel that taking the law one's own hands, often called vigilantism, is justified by circumstances?" This question, so phrased, treats the right of self defense as morally, if not legally, wrong. The language is subject to criticism as being highly prejudicial; perhaps to such a degree as to impugn the polls' results. But the Gallup organization's considered use of it is itself evidence of a concept which is now quite widespread, as is also shown by endemic misuse of the word "vigilantism." That word is constantly employed as if it applied only to private citizens, and as if it signified that there is something illegal or wrong about private citizens who act to defend their lives and those of others. (This is a solecism since such conduct is clearly legal, and the misusage not only broadens the historical meaning of vigilantism, but contradicts it.)[11]

In contrast to the responses given above from the two 1985 Gallup surveys, 71 to 80 percent of the respondents therein answered that there are circumstances in which self-defense may be justified. Indeed, 3 to 8 percent volunteered the assertion that self-defense is always justified, despite Gallup's failure to offer that option. Such approval sharply differentiates the moral premises of the majority of Americans from those embraced by many anti-gun advocates. Disapprobation for self-defense permeates the gun control movement, surfacing whenever gun issues are debated. However moderate, even innocuous, a new gun control proposal may be, its appearance sparks impassioned philippics to the effect that "the only purpose of a [gun, handgun, etc.] is to kill." The clear implication is that killing is always wrong -- even when necessary to defend against violent felony -- and that the purpose of gun control is to prevent such killing. In this regard, consider New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's assertion that Bernhard Goetz was morally wrong in shooting even if that was clearly necessary to resist robbery: "If this man was defending himself against attack with reasonable force, he would be legally [justified, but] not morally...."

Illustrative of anti-gun (but not pro-control) disapproval of self-defense is a May 1977 article on guns published in Engage-Social Action Forum, the magazine of the Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. The author, at the time the magazine's editor, avers that women should submit to rape rather than do anything that might imperil a rapist's life. Rhetorically posing the question, "Is the Robber My Brother," Rev. Allen Brockway answers affirmatively, for although the burglary victim or the

woman accosted in the park by a rapist is [not] likely to consider the violator to be a neighbor whose safety is of immediate concern *** [c]riminals are members of the larger community no less than are others. As such they are our neighbors or, as Jesus put it, our brothers. . . . [Though violent criminals act wrongfully,] it is equally wrong for the victim to kill, save in those extremely rare circumstances when the unambiguous alternative is one own's death.
The views articulated by Reverend Brockway are neither unrepresentative of the gun control movement nor uninfluential within it. Indeed, the most senior of the national gun control organizations, the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (NCBH) is a creation of the Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. NCBH's national office is in the Methodist Board's Washington building and the Board was NCBH's official fiscal agent until 1976 when gun lobby complaints to the Internal Revenue Service threatened the Church's tax exemption. (NCBH has recently changed its name to Coalition Against Gun Violence to facilitate its current emphasis on banning rifles and shotguns as well as handguns.)

Reverend Brockway's language seems to concede that a woman may shoot a rapist if she knows with certainty that he will kill her. This concession is of special interest because another NCBH affiliate, the Presbyterian Church USA, disagrees. Its official position is that the handgun should be banned because a victim may not take an attacker's life under any circumstance, even if she knows he will kill her after the rape. Testifying in a Congressional gun control hearing in the middle 1980s, the church's representative, Rev. ------- Young, director of its Criminal Justice Program, stated: "The General Assembly [of the Presbyterian Church USA] has declared in the context of handgun control and in many other contexts, that it is opposed to "the killing of anyone, anywhere, for any reason." Reverend Young emphasized that the Presbyterian position is moderate in that it seeks only to ban handguns, not hunting guns. Rifles and shotguns are not condemned because the church sees them as owned, as he put it, "by sports people." They are different from handguns whose purpose is self-defense. Making no distinction between murderers and victims who lawfully defend themselves, the Presbyterian Church USA categorically condemns handguns as "weapons of death ... that are designed only for killing." In the church's view, "There is no other reason to own a handgun (that we have envisioned, at least) than to kill someone with it."

Some secular opponents go farther, rejecting even sport as a legitimate purpose of gun ownership. Thus, in a 1968 editorial, the Detroit Daily Press said:

No private citizen has any reason or need at any time to possess a gun. This applies to both honest citizens and criminals. We realize the Constitution guarantees the "right to bear arms" but this should be changed.
The theme of self-defense as atavistic and morally abhorrent is a constant theme in statements by anti-gun luminaries. University of Chicago Prof. Robert Replogle, M.D. (founder and leader of several Illinois anti-gun organizations) has said in congressional testimony: "The only legitimate use of a handgun that I can understand is for target shooting." Prof. Morris Janowitz objects to even that: "I see no reason ... why anyone in a democracy should own a [weapon]."

The natural outgrowth of this point of view is the law that NCBH succeeded in having adopted by the District of Columbia City Council in 1976. Under it, householders may not buy handguns nor may guns of any type be kept assembled or loaded for self- defense. While Handgun Control, Inc. claims to be more moderate than NCBH, it too supports this as the ultimate gun control law.

Gun control proposals presented in these terms are patently unacceptable to the kind of people who own guns. Though their attitudes and psychological profiles are not generally distinguishable from those of the rest of the population, one respect in which they do differ is in being even more likely than non-owners to approve the use of defensive force against violent felons.[12] This approval seems to transcend political differences: Analysis of another national poll reveals that, while liberals are less likely to own guns than the general populace, those liberals who do own a gun are just as willing as other gun owners to use it if necessary to repel a burglar.[13]

But it would be highly misleading to infer that belief in the legitimacy of self-defense is confined to gun owners. Though this belief may no longer be "universal," it was exhibited by the 78 percent of the respondents in the 1985 Gallup Poll who averred that, if the situation arose, they would themselves use deadly force against an attacker. Assuming that 50 of those 78 percentage points reside in the roughly 50 percent of households that have guns, that leaves another 28 percentage points (i.e. well over half of the non-gun owners) who concur in the legitimacy of deadly force self-defense. It is little wonder that public enthusiasm for gun control proposals fades as those associated with them express an attitude toward self-defense which is disagreeable to a large majority of the public and vehemently so to upwards of 50 percent of the public.


Why do those I describe as "anti-gun" insist that advocacy of gun controls include portraying gun owners as "demented and blood-thirsty psychopaths whose concept of fun is to rain death upon innocent creatures both human and otherwise"? While this may partially reflect mere cultural antagonism against gun owners, it also involves genuine, ethically-based abhorrence of self-defense and consequent abhorrence of the gun owners and the gun as symbols thereof. To recall some of the quotations given earlier:

No private citizen has any reason at any time to possess a gun... the need that some homeowners and shopkeepers believe they have for weapons to defend themselves [represents] the worst instincts in the human character... I see no reason ... why anyone in a democracy should own a weapon... [W]eapons of death ... designed only for killing... There is no other reason to own a handgun (that we have envisioned, at least) than to kill someone with it... [Armed] against their own neighbors, ...gun nuts [are] anti-citizens, traitors, enemies of their own patriae....
Anti-gun insistence on this kind of discourse is indispensable to the gun lobby's success in defeating control proposals that, in principle, enjoy overwhelming support. Instead of dealing with the merits of the proposals, the gun lobby is enabled to mobilize gun owners' opposition by portraying all "control" as a hate- inspired scheme designed to systematically multiply controls to the ultimate purpose of making gun ownership impossible. It is this discourse which convinces gun owners that "gun control" is not a criminological imperative but an expression of culturally or ethically based hatred of them.

Recognizing this, gun control organizations try to refrain from officially endorsing anti-gun rationales. Unfortunately, that usually is not enough to counteract the chorus of (more or less) unofficial anti-gun champions using every occasion to proclaim anti-gun rationales and hailing even the most moderate control proposals as steps toward the eventual banning of all guns. In principle, pro-control forces could defuse this by disavowing and vehemently denouncing overtly anti-gun rationales for moderate controls. But anti-gun advocates are so numerous and influential among gun control organizations that it is impossible for less extreme forces to repudiate anti-gun ideology and disassociate their proposals from it. Yet the failure to do this makes it impossible to convince skeptical gun owners that a restriction championed by those who revile them does not really do or imply what those enemies claim.

Thus, one reason for the defeat of gun controls which seem to have almost universal support is that anti-gun discourse has made fanatic opponents out of gun owners who would otherwise have been supporters. The second (and related) obstacle to enactment of gun controls is that certain elements that underlie anti-gun discourse tend to alienate a substantial proportion of even non- gun owners who would otherwise support moderate controls. Though polls show that most Americans support "gun control" (undefined), what that means to them (and why they support it) is very different from what (and why) anti-gun activists support. Close analysis of recent state plebiscites demonstrates this and the baleful effect expression of anti-gun rationales has upon gun control efforts that otherwise would enjoy overwhelming support. The intense debate in these campaigns exposes how different the public's "pro-control" pragmatism is from the moralism of "anti- gun" groups.

In sum, it is not the innate strength of the gun lobby that defeats gun control proposals. Rather it is anti-gun zealots whose extreme proposals, and extremist arguments for even moderate controls, alienate a public that is open to rational ideas for control.

Don B. Kates, Jr., is editor of Restricting Handguns (1979) and the author of "Firearms and Violence: Old Premises, Current Evidence" in T. Gurr (ed.) Violence in America (1989) and the entry on the Second Amendment in M. Levy & K. Karst, The Encyclopedia of the American Constitution.

Note: Kates is also the GunRights columnist for Peterson's HANDGUNS magazine as well as a Civil Rights Lawyer based in San Francisco, CA. He is also a member of the Supreme Court Bar Association.


  1. Similar pronouncements are easy to find. Owning guns for defensive reasons is characterized as "simply beastly behavior" in "Gun Toting: A Fashion Needing Change," 93 Science News (1968) p. 613-14. See generally ---------- Luedens, "Wretchedness is A Warm Gun," 48 Progressive 50 (1984) and Harlan Ellison, "Fear Not Your Enemies," Heavy Metal, March 1981.
  2. J. Wright, P. Rossi, K. Daly, Under the Gun: Weapons, Crime and Violence in the United States (N.Y., Aldine: 1983), p. 4. This is the commercially published version of the analysis.
  3. Studies undertaken to link rates of gun ownership to violence rates find either no relationship or a negative one; thus, cities and counties with high gun ownership suffer less violence than demographically comparable areas with lower gun ownership. See, e.g., Douglas Murray, "Handguns, Gun Control Law and Firearm Violence", 23 Social Problems (1975), p. 81; David Bordua and Alan Lizotte, "Patterns of Legal Firearms Ownership", 2 Law & Policy Quarterly (1979); Alan Lizotte and David Bordua, "Firearms Ownership for Sport and Protection: Two Divergent Models", 45 American Sociological [?] Review (1980), p. 229, and 46 American Sociological Review (1981), p. 499; Gary Kleck, "The Relationship between Gun Ownership Levels and Rates of Violence in the United States" in D. Kates (ed.) Firearms and Violence (1984); ------ McDowall, "Gun Availability and Robbery Rates: A Panel Study of Large U.S. Cities, 1974-1978," 8 Law & Policy Quarterly (1986), p. 135. See also ------- Eskridge, "Zero-Order Inverse Correlations between Crimes of Violence and Hunting Licenses in the United States," 71 Sociology & Social Research (1986), p. 55.
  4. Lance Stell "Guns, Politics and Reason", 9 Journal of American Culture (1986), pp. 71, 73. (emphasis in original). Compare the observation by the author of a Ford Foundation study of gun control: "[G]un owners believe (rightly in my view) that the gun controllers would be willing to sacrifice their interests even if the crime control benefits were tiny." Mark Moore, "The Bird in Hand: A Feasible Strategy for Gun Control," 2 Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (1983), pp. 185, 187-8.
  5. ----- Schuman and ------ Presser, "Attitude Measurement and the Gun Control Paradox," 41 Public Opinion Quarterly (1983), p. 345; and ----- Erskine, "The Polls: Gun Control," 36 Public Opinion Quarterly (1972), p. 455.
  6. The Time poll found that 67 percent of gun owners expressed general agreement with the NRA and 63% and did not think strict controls would reduce violence. But this does not sharply differentiate gun owners from most Americans; polls show substantial dubiety that gun laws can reduce crime and general disbelief that they will reduce crime. See "Attitudes Toward Gun Control: A Review," in Federal Regulation of Firearms: A Report Prepared for the Use of the Committee on the Judiciary U.S. Senate (97th Cong. 2nd Sess.) by the Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress (U.S. Gov't Printing Office, 1982).
  7. Id., p. 230. The only Gallup Poll showing majority support for a handgun ban was one taken in 1959. No polls on the issue seem to have been taken during the 1960s. But the approximate doubling of handgun ownership during that decade, and the average 2 million new handguns sold yearly since 1969 seem to have had an effect. As of 1975 when Gallup next plumbed the issue, majority sentiment had reversed. A Harris Poll taken the same year reached the same conclusion. Since 1980 Gallup has asked the same question in 1980, 1982, 1987 and twice in 1981 without ever finding a majority favoring a handgun ban.
  8. George Gallup, The Sophisticated Poll Watcher's Guide (1972), p. 105.
  9. James D. Wright, "Public Opinion and Gun Control: A Comparison of Results from Two Recent Surveys", 455 Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1981), p. 24; David Bordua, "Adversary Polling and the Construction of Social Meaning" 5 Law and Policy Quarterly (1983), p. 345.
  10. Herbert Wechsler, "A Rationale of the Law of Homicide", 27 Columbia Law Review (1937), p. 701, 736. (emphasis added).
  11. For a discussion of the law see Don B. Kates, Jr., and Nancy Engberg, "Deadly Force Self-Defense Against Rape" 15 University of California at Davis Law Review (1982), p. 873, 877-80. As to "vigilantism," accurately used it does not distinguish between private citizens and police, it does not necessarily imply deadly force and it would never apply to any defensive use of force, even excessive force. Vigilantism defines a highly specific kind of wrongdoing: a citizen or police officer taking the law into his own hands by subjecting a "criminal" to violence as a means of imposing punishment without due process of law. The limitations of the concept may be illustrated by three alternative hypotheticals of the facts in the Goetz case: a) if Goetz shot in reasonably necessary defense against an attempt to rob him, the shooting was lawful and thus not vigilantism; b) if Goetz actually but unreasonably feared that mere panhandlers were menacing his life, the shooting was illegal, but still not vigilantism; c) the shooting was vigilantism only if Goetz used deadly force (or any force at all) knowing it was unnecessary and for the purpose of arrogating to himself the judicial function of punishing. Vigilantism is always illegal, whether engaged in by a private citizen or by an officer misusing his powers. Conversely, it is a contradiction to apply the term to lawful conduct either by private citizens or by officers.
  12. Alan Lizotte and Jo Dixon, "Gun Ownership and the 'Southern Subculture of Violence'", 93 American Journal of Sociology (1987), p. 383. This approval of "defensive force" must be distinguished from generally "violent attitudes" (as defined by approval of violence against social deviants or dissenters). Gun owners are no more likely to have generally violent attitudes than are non-owners. Indeed, the holders of violent attitudes were less likely than the average gun owner to approve of defensive force (perhaps perceiving it would be directed against violent people like themselves).
  13. ----- Whitehead and ------ Langworthy, "Gun Ownership: Another Look," 6 Justice Quarterly (1989), p. 263.