Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

Suzanne Strassberger

Suzanne Strassberger writes about the personalities, minutiae, and back-stories behind decision-making in Springfield.

Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

After Sandy Hook…

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Driving south on Interstate 55, about 30 minutes north of Springfield, you pass a series of billboards, beginning with "guns don't kill people" and ending with "people kill people."   If I posted those billboards outside my house, neighbors would be horrified.  But downstate, defined as anywhere outside of the Chicago metropolitan area, this logic seems about right.

At the State Capital on any given day when gun control legislation is being debated, groups of ordinary, pleasant people show up to protect their Second Amendment rights. What is it about regulating access to guns that generates such heat?  Other controversial issues--funding for parochial schools, sex education, speed limits--barely inspire a whimper from citizen advocates. 

The usual answer refers to the legendary power of the National Rifle Association combined with a nod to the "us vs. them," red vs. blue state, urban vs. rural thesis of national divide.

But that doesn't tell the whole story.

This is not to dismiss the amazing narrative that is the NRA.  Like ACLU members passionately defending the First Amendment, NRA members stand proud for the Second Amendment. Both advocacy organizations are vigilant about the slippery slope to compromise. The difference is that there are 4.3 million NRA members and only 500,000 ACLU members. The NRA has built, legislative district by district, state by state, a network of members dedicated to making sure that laws do not interfere with anyone's ability to defend oneself with a gun.

However, the fact that the NRA has developed such a faithful following--which leads into the power and the perception of power that sways politicians-- is about more than a very good ground-game. It is about feelings.  A gun pointed at you makes you feel helpless; you pointing a gun at someone makes you feel powerful.  I understand why my friend's brother, who never carried a gun until he was shot by an armed robber, bought a gun, began practicing at a gun range, and joined the NRA.

Gun control advocates point to the facts.  In 2011, approximately 32,000 people died from guns; 33,000 died in car accidents.  Think about that.  The vast majority of people living in the United States get into a car every day of their lives. In comparison, with the exception of the military and police, most people don't even touch a gun for weeks and years; perhaps a lifetime.  Yet the number of deaths is about equal. Other statistics show that where there are more guns; there are more gun-related violence and death. This is true in comparing counties, states and countries. 

Still, when you are protecting a personal right to defend oneself and one's family; data doesn't resonate. 

Data definitely doesn't resonate with Illinois legislators living south of I-80, most of whom do not vote in support of gun control. In floor debates, they talk about the joys of hunting and sports-shooting. They praise the constitutional right to bear arms. They know the track record of the NRA in opposing candidates who don't toe the line and that their dues-paying NRA member-constituents vote.

Is gun violence prevention legislation doomed in Illinois and in Washington?  The best of democratic legislation rests on compromise built out of discussions among warring groups.  Gun owners talk about the importance of behaving responsibly (keeping guns locked up, for example). Some say that assault and semi-assault weapons have no role in hunting, sports-shooting, or home defense. Is the NRA talking privately with these members to identify places to compromise or are they sticking with their message of letting nothing interfere with the rights of people to carry guns? Without talk; there can be no progress.    

For the past 19 years, the NRA has not seen reason to engage. In 1994, they joined the early discussions around the Assault Weapons Ban but then pulled out, fearing loss of members. They haven't lost a major legislative battle at the federal level since that bill was passed.

On Thursday, the NRA will send representatives to a meeting with Vice President Biden who is leading the White Panel on gun violence.  Can common ground be found between those who value the right to be armed and those who are worry about gun violence? If not, what happens next?

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