Americans and Guns: Are the Politics Changing?

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Demonstrators at March For Our Lives Rally in Mobile, Ala. Photo by mobilius in mobile via Flickr

Igor Volsky

Igor Volsky. Photo by Peter Dohan

Igor Volsky learned to tell the difference between what politicians say and what they do when he was growing up in the former Soviet Union.  The lesson came back to him forcefully as a teenager exposed to the debates and controversy about gun control in the U.S.

After the mass shootings in San Bernardino, Ca., (2015) and Orlando, Fl., (2016), annoyed by what he called the “risk-averse” approaches taken by politicians, he decided to form Guns Down America, a nonprofit organization aimed at harnessing the national consensus that more regulation can help reduce gun violence. He turned his policy ideas into a forthcoming book as well: Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future with Fewer Guns.

In a conversation with The Crime Report’s Julia Pagnamenta, Volsky explains why he thinks the chances for meaningful gun control have improved, why firearms manufacturers are vulnerable to a concerted campaign, and what he thinks the Founding Fathers might have made of the current debates over the Second Amendment.

The Crime Report: How did you get started in gun control and reduction advocacy?

IGOR VOLSKY: My entrance into the gun movement really started with a Tweet storm after the San Bernardino shooting [December 2015]. That came after a deep frustration that we have lawmakers who say the right thing after a shooting, or at the very least express their “thoughts and prayers” after a shooting, but do not actually do anything to reduce gun deaths. And so when I sat down on the computer the day of the San Bernardino shootings, I saw all of the lawmakers who voted against background checks in the aftermath of the [Sandy Hook school shootings in December 2012], now Tweeting their thoughts and prayers as if they cared about actually doing something to reduce gun deaths, that just made me really angry.

Probably because I came from a background where the gaps between what a politician actually said and what a politician actually does is really wide, and I found that to be the case on this issue.

So [gaining a platform] really brought me into the movement in a real way, and when I got to the table I recognized that there were lots of great organizations that were working on this issue, but they had a scope that was relatively narrow. Their scope was what can we get done in this Congress? What is politically possible in this moment? What incremental change can we secure? And I realized from my work on other issues that there existed a space for an organization that talked about long-term goals, that talked about where do we want to be in 10, 15, 20 years? And for me that point was a future with fewer guns and making guns harder to get. I got to that point by looking at all of the research. I looked at countries around the world and there is unanimity on the point of where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths.

The book is really an effort to reset the conversation. After the [February 2018 Parkland school  shooting] there is so much new energy in this movement. There are folks who are coming into the issue, and into politics, fresh, and we as a movement need to meet them where they are. The American public is way ahead of politicians on this issue, and I view it as my role as an advocate to help close the gap between the kinds of incremental reform that politicians are still putting forward and where I think most Americans are.

TCR: Is there a large discrepancy between where politicians stand on gun control and what the American public believes?

VOLSKY: Politicians are naturally risk averse. Whether it is guns, or whatever issue, they use talking points, framing, and messaging that is safe. You saw that same dynamic in marriage equality. In 2007, 2008, the country was clearly in a place where the country was ready to move towards marriage equality, and yet you had a bunch of Democrats running for office, or for the presidency in 2008, who would only go as far domestic or civil unions. They were just afraid that a mythical number of voters would drop out. The reason why I think Obama didn’t do it in 2008, didn’t do it in 2009, was because he was risk averse. The established and conventional wisdom was, you can’t go that far, you will alienate voters.

And we saw in 2012 once the president [Obama] embraced marriage equality, or first Joe Biden, nothing happened. Nobody cared because the public was already there. And I think the same thing is true on the gun issue.

[California Senator] Kamala Harris just held a town hall where she talked about background checks; where she talked about banning assault weapons. Those are all good things, we support all of those things, but it is time for lawmakers, for candidates, to meet Americans where they are; to go bolder on this issue because we really as a country have evolved on this issue. Frankly, I think the gun movement [is] where we were on marriage equality in 2007 and 2008; where Americans were in a bolder place than politicians. The purpose of the book and the organization [Guns Down America] is to move our conversation towards that bolder place.

TCR: How did your personal background influence your decision to enter gun reduction advocacy work?

VOLSKY: The reason I work in progressive politics at all is because I grew up in the Soviet Union, where you were told every single day that lawmakers were working for you, and they are making things better for you, and you are all equal.  The reality, the reason why we literally had to flee, first to Israel, and then to America was that being Jewish in the Soviet Union at that time—and I suspect is also to some degree true today in Russia—was very difficult. You were locked out of opportunities, you couldn’t go to colleges, you couldn’t get good jobs just because you were Jewish.

From a very early age [I was exposed to] the gap between what lawmakers actually say and what they do in reality. And this issue followed me to America, and so when I sat down on Dec. 2, 2015 [San Bernardino shooting] and saw the hypocrisy of “thoughts and prayers,” I [realized] I had honestly seen it before, and in that moment it really sparked an anger inside of me that I think goes back to those roots.

TCR: You write in the book that the Founding Fathers would have embraced Guns Down’s policies. Can you put this debate into historical perspective?

VOLSKY: The history here is really important. The fact that during the drafting of the Constitution and the drafting of the [Second] Amendment there was no argument about an absolute right to own a firearm, and to the extent that it was discussed, their understanding of what it meant to own a firearm really extended to the militia, not to the individual. And this notion of an individual right to own a firearm, which the Supreme Court would then find many years later in 2008 in the Heller case [District of Columbia v. Heller], that wasn’t something that we birthed in the beginning of our nation.

That is really something that came out following the revolt within the National Rifle Association  (NRA) leadership in 1977, and it came out of a multi-million dollar propaganda campaign on behalf of the NRA and the really successful work they were able to do in the legal profession through the states to build and create a new understanding of what the Second Amendment meant.

The argument that I make is that the Founding Fathers would be shocked to learn that the Second Amendment actually extended individual rights to own and have a firearm. That is certainly not the way they talked about it; that’s not the way they wrote about it; that wasn’t the debate at the time. It really evolved into that understanding as a result of a very powerful gun lobby and that of course has created a standstill in our politics and has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

TCR: You cite research showing that Americans make up five percent of the global population, yet they make-up approximately half of the world’s civilian gun owners. Are these striking figures part of an historical continuum or did a specific event or political era trigger mass gun ownership?

VOLSKY: Americans have long had a place in their culture for guns. This didn’t make it into the final book, but it certainly continued as America began to expand West. Guns were used for all kinds of purposes, to clear the land of indigenous people. That was also the case during colonial days when guns were used to enslave people and exert a degree of power. That’s just the history of guns in America. And you certainly move into what was happening during the time of the Martin Luther King assassination [April 1968], and the John F. Kennedy  assassination [November 1963], and the rise of urban unrest, and how certain parts of the population responded to that with gun ownership.

What I find more interesting is the change in the National Rifle Association (NRA) that really occurred in the latter end of the 1970s. There was new leadership at the time, and with it came this notion that any kind of gun control violates the Second Amendment. That the right within the Second Amendment is far broader than past NRA leaders, than the Supreme Court, had argued, and that’s really in many ways the starting point of gun fundamentalism that said you cannot regulate my ability to have a gun. That my freedom to have a gun for all intent of purposes is absolute. That’s an idea that the NRA birthed in the late 1970s, and that’s an idea they spent millions of dollars propagating.

So, whereas before Americans had guns, [they] also understood that those guns could be controlled for the interest of public safety. You actually saw that in the Wild West days, where many of those towns actually had very strict gun control. You saw that in the way the NRA publicly thought about guns in the early part of the 1900s; that all changed in the 1970s. So part of the argument I make is that the modern notion from gun enthusiasts that the Second Amendment is absolute, and that their right to own any kind of gun could bear almost no restriction, that’s a pure invention.

The NRA invented that for two reasons: one is to sell memberships, and two is to help the gun industry sell more guns.

TCR: You write that the NRA is powerful not only because it shapes gun policy, but also because it has built a social community and identity. 

VOLSKY: The social construct piece, the social identity of the gun owner was probably the most interesting part for me as I began researching and writing the book. It was important for me to understand: why is it that gun owners are so much more likely to call their members of Congress? [Why] are [they] so much more likely to be plugged into the advocacy on their side of the issue? The NRA doesn’t make arguments around facts and figures, they make arguments around what it means for an individual to own a firearm and what kind of individual that is.

In their construct, when you own a gun, you are a great patriot, you are somebody who is living the spirit and the ideals of our Founding Fathers, and the very core of what it means to be an American. That’s how they structure all of their arguments. If you, as a gun owner, are the quintessential American who has all the values for freedom and democracy, then the opposition is the exact opposite of that.

They are building a set of values that goes into social issues. So you are more likely to have certain views on abortion, certain views of LGBTQ rights, certain economic views. It really is an entryway for you to construct an entire worldview that everyone in your community shares. That’s really the power they were able to tap into.

The gun control movement in contrast argues in a very different way. It argues through facts and figures, and through logic. As a result, it doesn’t have the same kind of emotional resonance as the other side.

TCR: You describe how common and routine it has become for schools to engage in active shooter training. How have these shootings transformed education in this country, and the training’s psychological effects on students?

VOLSKY: I am 33. I have never undergone a lock-down drill in school. The first shooting I vividly remember is the Columbine shooting on April 20th, 1999. I was in homeroom, we heard about it, we talked about it. [But] there wasn’t any suggestion that now we are going to change all the policies, that we’re going to do active shooting drills. As I point out in the book, at that point when I was in school, the percentage of public schools that had locked down drills was relatively low. That really changed after the Newtown shooting.

It changed after [Sandy Hook] because we had so many more mass shootings, because the industry had more time to advertise their military style weapons to young people, and they do that deliberately because they want an in into that market. As a result, young people are really on the front lines of our broken gun laws, and the fact is that we, as a country, have made a decision to basically let the gun industry do whatever it wants.

When I went to the March for Our Lives [March 2018] here in D.C., I talked to a lot of students and a lot of teachers about what it meant to be in a lock-down drill. It really fell into two different camps. One camp was that it was a really traumatic experience. It’s really scary, but what’s increasingly been happening—and this is both in the anecdotes I heard, but it’s also chronicled in David and Laura Hogg’s book [#NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line], and also in the movie, The Eighth Gradeis that it’s become so ubiquitous that it is now treated as a joke. This is just another thing. Even in the Parkland shooting, Laura and David Hogg talk about how in the actual shooting, when it was actually happening, a whole bunch of kids thought it was just a joke.

On top of that, you have different companies that are trying to profit from it. Having all sorts of backpacks that are bullet-proof, different vests that are bullet-proof. And so we’re in this place where we are putting our kids in danger, and we’re somehow more concerned about how to protect them from the stuff that is coming out of the guns, rather than making sure that guns don’t get into the schools, and into the movie theaters, and into the malls in the first place.

TCR: What role does American media coverage have in shaping the conversation around gun violence?

VOLSKY: What I think is important to recognize is when I started writing the book in August 2016, the movement itself was different, and the way Americans themselves related to the issue was different. Before Parkland you would walk into rooms with movement leaders, or you would walk into just general conversation, and there was a great divide between the way people would talk about mass shootings and the way people talked about everyday gun violence that plagues a lot of our urban communities. Mass shootings were always seen as a big problem that we have to solve, while everyday gun violence was barely mentioned.

As a result of the Parkland movement, and the very smart way that the leaders of that movement weaved in and connected every day gun violence to mass shootings, I think both the movement and Americans at large see the two as intertwined. As a result, I think the media is really catching up, and in many ways, closing the gap. Certainly more work still needs to be done.

In the book,  I discuss to some degree about the great community-based violence intervention programs that are running in cities across the country, like Cease Fire, and Cure Violence, and others that really changed community norms to make sure that people don’t pick up the guns in the first place. And there really is a greater recognition of that both within the general public and our elected leaders. I think we were able to make significant progress on that front.

TCR: What do you think of sociologist Zeynep Tufekci’s warning in a 2012 piece in the Atlantic in which she cautions newspapers and the media against printing “detailed information about the killer and his methods” because it possibly generates a copy-cat effect?

VOLSKY: In all of my work, and certainly in the book, with the exception of the Australian chapter, I don’t talk about the perpetrators. I don’t even frankly know their names because I don’t want to glorify the perpetrators and the killers.

More broadly, there is research, you are citing some of it, into the notion that the perpetrators of mass shootings are not necessarily copying other shooters. Some of them certainly are, and some of them have admitted to it. But the other factor here is that they have a fantasy of being in a shoot-out with police, of attracting the kind of attention that these acts generate, and that’s part of the calculus of committing the crime. I have no interest in feeding into that.

TCR: In certain European countries, such as Great Britain, the vast majority of law enforcement personnel don’t carry guns. Do you think that weaponizing our law enforcement contributes to perpetuating violence in our society?

VOLSKY: Research on this shows we have over 393 million guns in circulation and that in the states with higher rates of gun ownership, the police are three times more likely to die than in states with lower gun ownership. It’s also true the opposite way. You are more likely to die at the hands of police if you live in an area with higher rates of gun ownership. That suggests our rate of gun ownership in the United States puts both us and law enforcement officials at risk. It’s also a fact that law enforcement is not immune from this shoot-first, ask-questions-second culture that the NRA perpetuates. All of these are factors that contribute to the problem.

Can we move to a place where law enforcement officials don’t carry firearms? I’ll just say that in a country with 393 million guns that’s a challenge, a great challenge. I think the policing aspect and police brutality is something that the gun control movement hasn’t really grappled with. But it is something that they are stepping into and recognizing that they are part of the same general problem that we are all trying to solve. I fully recognize that it is incredibly complex, but that our ubiquity of firearms is certainly a contributing factor.

TCR: Please describe Guns Down proposals, such as the New Second Amendment Compact.

VOLSKY: The New Second Amendment Compact is [intended to] balance our unbalanced approach to firearms, and to propose a series of proposals that will help get us to a long-term goal of building a future with fewer guns. It’s basically divided into three different buckets.

The first bucket is cracking down on the gun industry. That’s significant because the industry is highly unregulated, and made a business decision in the late 1980s, early 1990s to make firearms of increased lethality, so we’re in a situation where people are dying from gunshot wounds that they would otherwise be surviving because the industry needs to market a new, more powerful weapon. That’s a huge problem and we really need to regulate the industry in a serious way. I propose in the book that the Consumer Safety Board regulate these firearms. We really have to start with the big fish and that’s the industry.

Bucket two is making it significantly harder to get [guns]. I write in the book about all of the latest science that shows that background checks only work in the context of a larger licensing system where it takes a lot longer between when you want the gun and when you actually get a gun. When the checks you have to go through, and the hoops you have to jump through, are far more extensive, we know that works in reducing gun deaths, both suicide and gun crimes. Both domestically and internationally.

The final bucket is an effort to deal with and reduce deaths in urban environments. That’s really about funding community based programs that we know work in changing behaviors and ensuring that people deal with offenses or fights or disagreements in a way that does not include firearms.

TCR: Let’s go back to your first bucket. In the debate around gun violence reduction and control the focus is on gun owners, but in your view transformation hinges on a top-down approach that holds big industries, such as gun manufacturers, accountable.

VOLSKY: Yeah, the top down approach is incredibly important. Part of the reason why we’re in this cycle is because the industry and the lobbies changed the conversation around the Second Amendment, around guns, and these industries pumped much more powerful weapons into our communities and they have not been held accountable.

So the group I run, Guns Down America, is really focused on weakening the industry. The other reason why going after the industry and the lobby is so important is because a lot of times the solutions we talk about are focused on criminalizing the gun owner. I spend some time in the book talking about whatever our solution is we can’t go down the route of criminalizing the gun owner, which historically has disproportionately impacted communities of color, while at the same time giving the industry and the lobby a pass. We can’t stand for that, we can’t make the same mistakes we’ve made in the past. That’s part of the reason why I’ve been emphasizing the industry over the user end.

See also, National Police Foundation report: “Does a Code of Silence Among Students, Parents Abet School Shootings?”

Julia Pagnamenta is a contributing writer to The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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