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Earlier this week a lone gunman perpetrated the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. Why does the U.S. lack a comprehensive gun control policy? After the violence at Columbine High School, Kristin Goss began studying the gun control movement in America. She talks about why the movement hasn’t caught on (it’s not the NRA) and how things may be changing. Her books are Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America and The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Conversation Highlights


So, that book came out of a mass shooting, one that was especially deadly and especially shocking at the time, which was the shooting at Columbine High School in my hometown of Denver Colorado.

And it occurred to me at the time – I had done some work earlier on gun violence in urban areas, we were coming off a national epidemic of gun violence largely in urban areas and I had been looking at sort of grassroots efforts by moms and very small volunteer groups to try to stem the tide, and had noticed that they were really under resourced and really struggling.

So, after Columbine I thought it would be interesting to take a more thorough look at the state of what then was called the “gun control movement” now called “the gun violence prevention movement.”

And it struck me that there was an easy answer to why the gun control movement was weak and that was that their opponents, namely the National Rifle Association, was so strong. And I certainly do not dispute that the NRA is an incredibly powerful political organization. There are many reasons for that. I thought that wasn’t the full story. So, I likened it to a football game. So, if you want to know why one team wins a lot it could because that team is really good, but it could also be that their opponents are weak. And I was interested in exploring the weakness on the gun control side.


I compared the gun control groups to a number of other groups that, to my eye, had developed really strong movements and were at the same time trying to sort of regulate individual freedom around the edges in the interests of some public good.

I sort of came up with three differences – maybe the magic formula that these other movements had discovered that the gun control groups had not.

The first was that these other groups had outside sources of institutional support. So– we all – we think we think of social movements as just bubbling up from the ground and they’re spontaneous and people come together to work for change.

And that’s not really the way social movements work.

They typically have outside sources of money, they have institutions that they can build around. So, think about the civil rights movement working with through African-American churches and historically black colleges and universities. And the gun control groups for a variety of reasons just did not have these kinds of steady sources of outside support.

[Gun control] organizations also really had not sort of found a values-based language for talking about their cause in a way that would really inspire action and would make people really relate to what they were doing.

The NRA, on the other hand, had discovered a language that was really powerful, that resonated with our national values of liberty and freedom and patriotism and individualism and so forth.

And I think probably the most important explanation [for why the gun control movement has had trouble] was …  gun control groups very early on decided to go very big and bold with their policy proposals – so national handgun bans and things like that.

And in my reading of history that’s not typically the way policy is made. Typically, a policy is made more incrementally from the state or local level up to the federal level … And I think essentially the gun control movement sort of overshot in a sense, no pun intended, and got the gun rights folks to be very defensive, and you know helped propel them into a more sort of hardline political stance that we’re still living with today.


It seems to me that the anti-tobacco forces in the modern movement certainly had a number of things on their side. So, first they had government support early on. The surgeon general gave his imprimatur in the early 1960s to the proposition that smoking kills you. A series of other reports said that not only does smoking kill you, it also severely affects the health of those around you. And so, there was credible scientific research backed in some cases by money and other things that government can do to sort of support movements.

The anti-tobacco movement also became a broader movement when the movement started talking about the effect on children. And it was really interesting as I was looking at the history of all these different movements for what we call social regulation, that they all eventually came around to making this argument that whatever the practice was affecting kids.

And that was the framing that really helped make the restriction of adult liberty a little bit more palatable politically.

The other difference between the two is that … the tobacco companies were certainly powerful and moneyed interests, but they did not have a riled-up base. So, people enjoyed smoking but they weren’t going to organize collectively and storm their members of Congress’s offices as a mass movement to fight against higher tobacco taxes, for example.

The pro-gun rights folks are extremely well organized locally, at the state level, and at the federal level….They see each other regularly. I mean shooting guns is a recreational activity for millions of people – it’s fun. And they have natural places to come together at gun shows, at gun ranges, out hunting where they can create strong communities and identity around firearms ownership and use and where they can spread political messages about threats from legislation.

I think with smoking there wasn’t that parallel organization of everyday individuals who were consuming cigarettes. And I think also people love their guns more than smokers love their cigarettes.


So there are some “Groundhog Day”-like aspects when you have a terrible shooting. People get really upset. There are calls for Congress to do something to pass a law. Money flows in from everyday people and from wealthy people. Congress maybe discusses it, but doesn’t pass whatever the proposal is – typically it’s been a universal background check proposal. You can see the same thing happening after Columbine that happened after Sandy Hook. I mean it’s eerie.

That said I think that there’s there has been a pretty important shift among gun policy reformers since I started doing this research in the late 90s and early 2000s. And I would say three things are really different.

There’s a lot more money in the gun control movement now than there was then and it’s sustained. So, I look at Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, is really concerned about this issue and he along with some other mayors founded an organization in 2006 and got started in 2007 and that organization which has now called Every Town for Gun Safety has merged with an organization of mothers that started after Sandy Hook to become a real powerhouse in the gun control movement space. …

So, there’s a lot more money there’s new players and … the moms are talking in very child-centered terms. I mean that is how they are framing this this issue. And they are really active. … social media Facebook and so forth are allowing people who otherwise might not be able to find each other or to really build a strong sense of community and purpose for their movement are able to do that across space and time through Facebook and to a lesser extent through Twitter. …there’s a sort of community building that social media are allowing now that just wasn’t the case when I you know after Columbine when the Internet was a very young tool.


Well so I think the easy narrative about gun violence prevention or gun control is that, you know, terrible things happen and Congress does nothing and that’s pretty true. But law enforcement is generally a state-level issue and there’s been a lot of movement at the state level that goes under the radar.

I did a piece a couple of years ago about laws that are aimed at limiting gun access to people with severe mental illness. I counted something like 80 laws that had passed over a decade period from 2004 to 2014 in 40 states and the majority of those were tightening those restrictions.

Domestic violence is another one. So, we have a graduate student who is who is counting those laws. And these are laws that are – that are – you know the National Rifle Association is signing off on. It’s all done very quietly behind the scenes. But there is movement. More states have background checks now than when I started doing this research 15 or 20 years ago. So, we have a national background check law for official sales or official dealers like Wal-Mart or Joe’s Gun Store. But private sales are not regulated federally so that’s falling to the states and those -every year another state or so adds a background check law for private sales. So, it’s not the majority of states but there’s movement there.


There is a new policy tool that’s starting to be rolled out in the states and introduced in a number of states without having been enacted yet called a “gun violence restraining order” or “an extreme-risk protection order.” And what these do is essentially allow family members or household members of people who have guns and are exhibiting potentially dangerous behavior to petition a civil court to remove that gun from the home for a set period of time and to bar that individual from buying another gun while that gun is removed ….

… Mass confiscation firearms is never going to happen. And so, I think that that actually to deal with this problem and we’re going to have to kind of rely on each other to some extent we’re going to have to empower individuals to be able to separate dangerous people from firearms.

The other thing that is showing a lot of promise [are new] domestic violence laws. At the federal level there are laws that say that if you’re a domestic abuser, … you’re not allowed to own or purchase a gun.

But as a practical matter the federal government, The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms is not going to enforce this law. They don’t have enough people, it’s not really their job. It’s the local authorities that enforce these kinds of laws. So, what that means is you need a state law that parallels the national law.

And a lot of states don’t have it or they don’t enforce it. Or they’ll pass a law that says domestic abusers can’t have a gun but they don’t have any mechanism of going and getting the gun once they the person has been convicted of a misdemeanor. So, there are patches in the implementation of these laws.

… Sandy Hook started as a domestic murder, right? Adam Lanza killed his mother before he went to the school. So, I have the feeling that that getting a handle on the domestic violence situation might actually have a ripple effect on other kinds of gun fatalities. [And some of these new efforts are promising.]


So, my dad grew up on a farm in western Colorado. There were guns everywhere as there needed to be. He was in the military. He was a conservative. He believed that firearms were fundamental to protecting our democratic freedoms. He owned a gun. But he was also a dad. And when Columbine happened, that that high school was very similar to the high school I went to, just a little bit you know down the road more or less. And he was horrified by this.

And shortly after Columbine happened, which was in 1999, the following year … Colorado put on the ballot a measure to require background checks at gun shows essentially. … And I remember calling my dad on Election Day and saying, “How did you vote on that?” And he said, “I voted for it.” And I thought “Wow, my dad voted for gun control this thing’s going to pass.” And I said, “Well, Dad, why did you vote for it?” And he said, “I don’t know, we ought to do something.”

And I always think about my dad when I think about the bitter politics of this issue and how it’s become sort of – how firearms have become so central to people’s identity and how hard it is to you know to regulate something that’s fundamental to someone’s identity.

There’s actually a pretty strong parallel I think between how pro-choice women feel about anti-abortion legislation and how pro-gun people feel about gun control legislation. You know, they both involve bodily identity and bodily sovereignty …

But then I also think, “Gosh if my dad could see a simple background check law as something that isn’t going to lead to mass confiscation, and fascism in America, that are probably a lot of other gun owners out there who could meet the gun control side halfway.”

It’s just that our politics plays out at an elite level where there are a lot of interests and being extreme and more extreme than the average person who might be your sympathizer.



In addition to Policy 360, Sanford produced another podcast, Ways & Means, which is a small radio show about surprising successes and spectacular failures in the art of creating successful neighborhoods, cities, states and countries. Each episode includes faculty research, stories from real people, is scripted and musically scored.

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