How a ‘missing’ movement made gun control a winning issue

On Thursday, April 4, 33 Republicans and all but one Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives passed additional restrictions on gun ownership as part of a renewed Violence Against Women Act. This move came on the heels of the February passage of two gun control bills: the Bipartisan Background Checks Act and the Enhanced Background Checks Act, all of which were opposed by the NRA.

As the first gun control legislation to pass either the House or Senate since the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, the recent bills mark a historic shift in American politics.

We have studied contemporary American gun culture for the past four years, tracing the foundation of the emerging gun control movement. Our research offers insight into the ways that gun violence prevention groups have promoted cultural shifts around guns, and why so many legislators are now willing to broach this contentious issue.

For the past 25 years, gun control has been the untouchable “third rail” of American politics. Even in the face of multiple mass shootings – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Orlando and Las Vegas, to name a few – very few politicians have declared themselves in favor of gun control. On the other hand, many successful politicians have positioned themselves as “pro-gun.”

By avoiding associating themselves with gun control, politicians have skirted a divisive issue. But they have also perpetuated the notion that gun regulations are not feasible or palatable to American citizens.

Background check bills failed in the 2013 Democrat-led Senate. They failed again in the 2016 Republican-led Senate. That seems surprising given that national polls report that, for the last six years, nine in 10 Americans have supported background check requirements on gun purchases. The failure of these bills provoked a sense of resignation from many Americans weary of the violence, who feared that if the Sandy Hook shooting hadn’t prompted legislative action, nothing would.

As consumer culture scholars, we find two things particularly notable about the passage of the House bills. First, the gun control movement’s seeds, planted as far back as 1974, have now begun to sprout. Second, passage of the bills is remarkable evidence of this social movement, irrespective of any Senate action or inaction.

The emerging movement

March 24, 2018 ‘March for Our Lives’ rally in Washington in support of gun control. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
American gun violence has provoked routine public condemnation and support for stronger gun laws. Yet, gun policy experts like Duke University political scientist Kristin Goss have described gun control as America’s “missing movement.” As of 2006, groups of concerned citizens had not gathered the financial resources, strategic framing and incremental policy changes needed to galvanize into a full-fledged movement.

Research on government anti-smoking campaigns has shown that changing the culture requires influencing change at multiple levels, including legislation, business and organization policies and individual behavior.