Organization Trends

The Policies of Gun Control Advocacy

Gun Control Advocacy (full series)
Landscape | Funders | Policies

Parts one and two of this series examined nonprofit gun control activist groups and their funding. The next question concerns the specific firearm policies that these groups favor. Such proposals must not only clear substantial political hurdles, but also survive a judicial environment in which courts have largely been settling once-lingering questions about the scope of the Second Amendment in favor of protecting Americans’ individual right to keep and bear arms.

Not every form of gun control is politically controversial or constitutionally problematic. Laws preventing children or violent felons from acquiring guns attract precious few critics. The debate turns on more divisive policy proposals, and many of these fault lines are well established in the public discourse: concealed carry permit requirements, the prohibition of high-capacity magazines and so-called assault weapons, and the applicability of background checks to private gun transfers are commonly disputed issues.

However, many prominent gun control activist groups ultimately envision an even more restrictive legislative and regulatory framework. Despite often being couched in terms of “common sense” reforms, their comprehensive implementation would not only significantly curtail an enumerated constitutional right, but also fundamentally shift how American society has traditionally treated responsible gun ownership.

Pro-Gun Control or Anti-Gun?

The essence of gun control advocacy is restricting civilian access to firearms, and the core objective for many advocates appears to simply be to reduce the raw number of guns possessed by Americans. Guns Down America broadly seeks “a future with fewer guns,” while March for Our Lives has a specific goal of removing at least 30 percent of guns from circulation through buybacks. The Violence Policy Center supports laws prohibiting various types of guns including certain inexpensive handguns and limiting the total number of firearms a citizen can legally possess in his or her home.

In addition to banning certain types of firearms and related accessories outright, activists also seek to significantly increase the legal barriers to purchasing, owning, and/or using a gun. Some common themes involve strict training and licensing requirements for gun owners, the registration of firearms with law enforcement, expanding the categories of people prohibited from possessing guns, banning the open carry of firearms, making it more difficult to obtain a concealed carry permit, preventing those permits from being automatically recognized in others states, and sales restrictions such as waiting periods. Everytown for Gun Safety—the largest gun control activist group in the country—wants to require retailers to inform prospective customers of various risks it claims are significantly increased by owning a gun.

Some gun control activists have expanded their targets beyond the guns themselves. Giffords proposes regulating BB guns like real firearms. To supplement its gun control proposals, the liberal think tank Center for American Progress also promotes “bullet control,” by which it means requiring background checks on ammunition sales, prohibiting direct-to-consumer online sales, banning the lead-based ammunition commonly used for hunting and target shooting on public lands, doubling the federal excise tax on ammunition, and diverting proceeds away from existing conservation and hunter education efforts toward new federal programs “designed to reduce the impact of gun violence on U.S. communities.” Giffords has suggested a policy of requiring a government-issued license merely to possess ammunition.

Finally, certain groups have absorbed gun control advocacy into a broader (and rather radical) left-wing critique of American politics and society writ large. March for Our Lives laments how Americans supposedly “put guns on a pedestal and prioritize firearm access over access to human needs.” It claims that areas with high levels of gun violence have been “intentionally impoverished” by the government. The group argues that firearms enable certain Americans to assert their “armed supremacy” over others, which in turn allows “white supremacy and patriarchy” to survive. According to March for Our Lives, gun violence is as much a product of “our capitalist, white supremacist society” as it is the product of insufficiently restrictive gun control laws.

Targeting Business

Another strategy employed by gun control activists involves attacking the firearms industry itself. One law commonly targeted for repeal is the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which Congress passed in 2005 with bipartisan majorities. Subject to certain exceptions, the law protects businesses in the firearms industry from civil liability if somebody else unlawfully misuses their products—for example, a criminal who uses a gun to commit a crime. The concept is intuitively fair, but the law became necessary after gun control advocates and sympathetic trial lawyers embarked on a dedicated litigation campaign aimed at undercutting the industry financially. Today, the PLCAA is often disingenuously spun as a special legal immunity that allows gun manufacturers and retailers to avoid “accountability.” Everytown has gone so far as to call it a “myth” that “criminals are responsible for their crimes, not the gun industry.”

To understand the PLCAA’s impact, consider the ongoing case of Estados Unidos Mexicanos v. Smith & Wesson Brands, Inc. et al., in which the Mexican government has sued seven gun manufacturers and one distributor in U.S. federal court. The Mexican government claims that most guns recovered at Mexican crime scenes originated in the United States and that those companies should be held liable for contributing to Mexico’s significant gun violence problem. The district court dismissed the case in September 2022, largely on the basis that the PLCAA “unequivocally bars” such lawsuits, but the ruling has been appealed. Gun control activist groups including Everytown, the Giffords Law Center, March for Our Lives, and the Violence Policy Center filed an amicus brief supporting Mexico and urging the district court to deny the motion to dismiss.

Not every effort involves courts and legislatures. Echoing similar campaigns targeting the oil and gas industry, an effort called Is Your Bank Loaded?—sponsored by Guns Down America in conjunction with groups like the American Federation of Teachers labor union and the activist group Color of Change—calls for large national banks to cease doing business (among other things) with firearm and ammunition manufacturers. A group called Change the Ref promotes a Gun Safety Certified mark for businesses that agree to support a variety of expansive gun control laws. The Violence Policy Center has criticized efforts to market firearms to racial and ethnic minority communities—arguing that “increased gun ownership can only increase death and injury among them”—and supports banning or heavily regulating firearm advertisements. The Alliance for Gun Responsibility has claimed that firearm sales are driven by a gun lobby “which regularly traffics in white supremacist messaging.”

Language and “De-Normalization”

Gun control is a perennially polarizing issue. From the expiration of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 2004 to the significant expansion of shall-issue and permitless concealed carry legal frameworks in the states to the landmark Supreme Court decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), and New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen (2022), the story of at least the past two decades has been largely one of victory for gun rights advocates.

Gun control activists have adapted and reframed their advocacy accordingly. Indeed, they have largely abandoned the term itself, preferring instead to characterize their work as directed at facially uncontroversial “gun safety” or “gun violence prevention” objectives. This is even reflected in the names chosen by major gun control advocacy groups, such as Everytown for Gun Safety and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was once called Handgun Control, Inc., while the now-defunct Coalition to Stop Gun Violence was originally founded as the National Coalition to Ban Handguns.

The reality is that many advocates for gun control object not simply to the existence or absence of any given law or to the Second Amendment and the manner it is interpreted in any given case, but to the entire culture of (overwhelmingly responsible) gun ownership that is valued by much of American civil society.

Even putting aside the substantial constitutional obstacles, it will be exceedingly difficult for gun control supporters to enact much of their agenda so long as guns remain a common feature of ordinary American life. People are more likely to support restrictive laws if they don’t believe the restrictions in question will ever personally impact them. In addition to their direct legal effects, nearly all gun control policy proposals can be viewed through this long-term prism of firearm “de-normalization.”

Robert Stilson

Robert runs several of CRC’s specialized projects. Originally from Indiana, he has a B.A. from Hanover College and a J.D. from University of Richmond School of Law, where he graduated…
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