Why Gun Control Is So Contentious in the US

An assortment of handguns.
An assortment of handguns. (Image credit: GunNewsDaily.com)

Should gun control really be so controversial?

"There are people who want to own guns for recreational or self-defense purposes, and on the other side, I don't think anyone wants to see someone walk into a crowded movie theater and kill people," said Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas. The goal is obvious: protect the former while minimizing the chance of the latter.

But history seems to have brought us to a point where the two considerations cannot be reconciled. Here's how it happened.

From militias to individuals

In the United States' early years, gun control had strong support, said Mark Tushnet, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University. Within decades of the adoption of the Bill of Rights — the document whose Second Amendment confers the "right to bear arms" as part of the people's right to form well-regulated militias  — laws banning concealed weapons were passed in many states (especially in the South, where more people owned guns). When these laws were challenged, courts upheld the bans as constitutional. The NRA, founded in 1871 as a sporting and hunting association, supported most gun control regulation for its first 100 years.

Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, "the increasing urbanization of the country made gun possession a matter of concern for a lot of people in the cities," whereas previously it was of concern primarily in rural areas where people hunted, Tushnet told LiveScience.

When urban gun violence reached a fever pitch with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, members of Congress (on both sides of the aisle) felt they had to act. [With Weaker Laws, More Guns Are Being Trafficked to Criminals]

"The 1968 Gun Control Act placed an extensive system of federal gun control, for the first time, on ordinary weapons. This marked a fairly large expansion of the federal involvement in gun control," Tushnet said. For the most part, NRA leaders supported the act.

But in 1970, a Democratic senator who had introduced that year's Firearms Registration and Licensing Act lost his re-election bid in Maryland, largely because many country folks saw the bill as an infringement on their rights, according to an account of the incident in The New Yorker. Historians view this as a critical moment: Conservative members of the NRA's leadership saw that gun rights could win elections, and they orchestrated a shift in the organization's stance.

"There was a bureaucratic coup d'etat within the NRA," Tushnet explained. "Washington insiders took the organization over from the more established gun enthusiasts who ran it, and converted it from an organization that was involved in supporting gun-related sporting activities into a Washington lobbying organization."

They changed the motto from "Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation," to "The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed." Ever since, the NRA has argued that the Second Amendment concerns individual gun ownership, rather than people's right to form armed militias for their common defense, as constitutional law scholars believe the Second Amendment intended. [Why Is the Constitution so Difficult to Interpret?]

The political maneuver worked because it occurred during what Tushnet calls the "rights revolution" of the middle 20th century.. "The NRA was able to take advantage of the 'rights revolution', which had made thinking about things that people cared about in terms of constitutionally protected rights much more prominent in our culture," he said.

The NRA began backing candidates who opposed gun regulations, always in the name of the Second Amendment, and gun control became a partisan issue.

Lack of dialogue

What were political divisions during the 1970s have become political polarizations today. One can blame the Internet.

Markman said, "It's no fun to confront someone who believes something different than you do. Fifty years ago, when there were three TV networks and a local newspaper, you had no choice but to confront things that were unpleasant because you had few options."

Regularly interacting with people whose views oppose one's own has a moderating effect, Markman explained. "When you have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you, your opinions become more similar, just because you have to take their perspective for a moment in order to understand what they're saying."

Today, thanks to cable TV and the Internet, one can easily avoid the unpleasant but valuable experience of disagreeing with people. "I can choose my TV news network on the basis of my beliefs. I can subscribe to email lists, websites, chat groups full of people whose opinions are quite similar to my own," he said.

Yelling into echo chambers about issues such as gun control, instead of engaging in conversations with those who disagree, has led each of us to spin toward extreme views, Markman said.

"There may very well be some way of allowing people to have guns for personal protection or sports purposes, while at the same time protecting people who just want to see a movie," he continued. "These are not easy problems to solve, but the fact is there are valid arguments on both sides of many issues. The best solution to most problems requires some discussion."

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Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.