Big Question: Is America Culturally Capable of Controlling Its Guns?
February 28, 2011 |  by Michael Anft

“The deep cultural chasm in America about guns mirrors broader political divisions that have hampered our nation’s ability to tackle other social problems. One side distrusts government and values self-reliance, including arming oneself for protection. The other believes that certain social problems are best addressed through government safeguards such as gun regulations. When mass shootings like the one we just experienced in Tucson occur, the media turn their attention to ‘the gun debate,’ dramatizing this cultural divide by giving voice to those with the most extreme views. Nothing much changes.

“Breaking this cycle of futility requires that we set aside the cultural debate on guns and focus on a policy debate about public safety. There is broad agreement among gun owners and non-gun-owners about gun policy. Survey data indicate that, when asked about specific proposals geared toward keeping guns from dangerous people, large majorities of gun owners support much-needed reforms. More than 75 percent of gun owners support requiring background checks for guns sold by private gun owners and fixing gaps in databases used to identify individuals prohibited from possessing guns.

“Mayor Michael Bloomberg is leading a bipartisan coalition of over 500 mayors across the United States, joined by clergy, crime victims, and police, that has begun to break the logjam on U.S. gun policy. Their mission is not to rid the United States of guns or to disarm individuals who own guns legally, but to advance policies to keep guns from dangerous people. The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research is conducting and synthesizing research that has shown that well-enforced gun laws can, indeed, achieve this objective.

“We will know that we have turned the corner when—after their photo op in hunting gear—politicians vow to enact gun laws that the vast majority of gun owners and non-gun-owners favor and that research suggests will reduce the toll of gun violence.”

Daniel W. Webster, a professor of health and public policy and co-director of the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Gun Policy and Research, is a leading national authority on firearms laws.

—Interview by Michael Anft, Photo by Mike Ciesielski