Why can’t we get real about illegal guns?

With polling numbers showing that a majority of Americans support sensible, effective measures like those proposed by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, why is it so hard to enact policies that protect the public?  Here is a partial list of the obstacles:

Campaign contributions and lobbying

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in the 2010 election cycle, the Institute for Legislative Action, the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association, gave contributions to candidates totaling $1,200,910. Two-thirds of that total went to Republicans in the House and Senate. The NRA has 4 million members. Its stated lobbying mission is “to defeat restrictive gun-control legislation, pass pro-gun reform legislation, and to educate the public about the facts concerning the many facets of firearms ownership.” The organization’s annual lobbying budget for 2010 was $2,045,000.

Vacancy at the top of ATF

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is the federal agency tasked with combating illegal gun trafficking. In 2006, during the Bush administration, Congress gave the Senate the power to confirm the director of the agency. Since that year, the agency has not had a Senate-confirmed director.  In those four years, while the agency’s officially confirmed directorship has gone unfilled, 50,000 more Americans have been killed by firearms.

Continuing the saga of the headless agency, on November 17, 2010, President Obama nominated as his choice for director Andrew Traver, a 23-year veteran of the ATF and chief of ATF’s Chicago office.  Traver’s nomination was supported by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Gun Violence Reduction Project, a national program supported by police chiefs. The nomination, however, received strong opposition from the NRA, due primarily to Traver’s advocacy for banning the sale of assault weapons. The Senate Judiciary Committee, during the lame-duck Congress, did not take up the nomination, which means that President Obama is required to resubmit Traver’s nomination during the new Congress.


Blocked research

On January 25, 2011, journalist Michael Luo published a story entitled, “N.R.A. Stymies Firearms Research, Scientists Say” in the New York Times. Luo interviewed scientists who reported suppression of data gathering at the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention.  He writes:

In the wake of the shootings in Tucson, the familiar questions inevitably resurfaced:  Are communities where more people carry guns safer or less safe?  Does the availability of high-capacity magazines increase deaths?  Do more rigorous background checks make a difference?

The reality is that even these and other basic questions cannot be fully answered, because not enough research has been done.  And there is a reason for that.  Scientists in the field and former officials with the government agency that used to finance the great bulk of this research say the influence of the National Rifle Association has all but choked off money for such work…

…The amount of money available today for studying the impact of firearms is a fraction of what it was in the mid-1990s, and the number of scientists toiling in the field has dwindled to just a handful as a result, researchers say. . . . The dearth of money can be traced in large measure to a clash between public health scientists and the NRA in the mid-1990s.  At the time, Dr. Rosenberg and others at the CDC were becoming increasingly assertive about the importance of studying gun-related injuries and deaths as a public health phenomenon, financing studies that found, for example, having a gun in the house, rather than conferring protection, significantly increased the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.

Initially, pro-gun lawmakers sought to eliminate the injury center completely, arguing that its work was “redundant” and reflected a political agenda.  When they failed they turned to the appropriations process.


Proliferation of illegal guns and the crisis of deadly crime that their availability fosters are not inevitable. Obstacles to fixing the problem, such as effective leadership, data gathering, and limiting the influence of special interests are identifiable and actionable with enough political will. If polling numbers are accurate, contrary to popular political narrative, the majority of gun owners and non-gun owners agree on the need to control illegal guns. Federal laws already on the books could be highly effective.  Currently, twenty out of twenty-two of those laws are not aggressively enforced.  As Mayors Against Illegal Guns points out, laws are passed to satisfy public outcry, but the necessary funding to put them into effect is not. Fixing that one piece of the puzzle would be a beginning.