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I helped lead the gun control movement. It’s asking the wrong questions

A campaign galvanized by mass shootings and assault weapons will inevitably find itself in a dead end. But there’s a way out.

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A sign tops the temporary fence line outside the parking lot of a King Soopers grocery store, the site of a mass shooting in which 10 people died, Friday, March 26, 2021, in Boulder, Colo.

David Zalubowski, Associated Press

My brother was critically injured in a mass shooting atop the Empire State Building almost 25 years ago. Every time another such shooting makes headlines it breaks my heart to know that other families are experiencing the same shock, horror and grief that ours has.

It also breaks my heart to see gun control supporters, part of a movement I once helped to lead, repeat the mistakes that doom us all to the unacceptable status quo: tens of thousands of shooting deaths a year.

The pattern is as familiar as it is tragic: In the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting, the main demand of political leaders and gun control groups is a federal assault weapons ban. The news media, which seems to pay attention to gun laws only in the wake of mass shootings, amplifies that call, mostly taking at face value the idea that an assault weapons ban is the best way to prevent “gun violence.” Then, as headlines about the latest calamity fade, so do the hopes of federal policy change.

If this pattern plays out again after the shootings in Georgia and Colorado, no one should be surprised. One of the most common questions I have gotten from journalists has been, “If things didn’t change as a result of (insert previously unthinkable tragedy here), how can we ever expect them to change?”

I believe that is the wrong question, and illustrates the problem with the gun control debate in the United States. Though it does not grab national headlines, the daily toll of gun deaths and injuries is just as horrifying as our mass shootings, and more preventable as a matter of policy. The gun control movement should focus on the deaths and injuries that are most common, rather than be galvanized by mass shootings like the one that put my brother in a coma.

Of the nearly 40,000 deaths involving guns in 2019, well under 1% were caused by what the FBI defines as “active shooter” incidents. In an average year, around 60% of deaths involving guns are suicides and upward of 30% are homicides that don’t meet the “active shooter” definition, like episodes of domestic and gang violence. Even unintentional shootings (about 1% of the total) outnumber mass shootings.

There are far more effective means to prevent these sadly routine tragedies than by focusing on assault weapons. And that means that it is both wrong and counterproductive for advocacy organizations and elected leaders to use the moments when the public is focused on gun control to push an assault weapons ban.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t disagree with the intent of an assault weapons ban. I led the organization that before my tenure as president helped to pass the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004, and I believe there is no place in civilized society for guns that are made for the express purpose of killing people.

But the fact is that if one were to objectively list solutions based purely on how much they would lower the number of gun deaths in our country, an assault weapons ban would not be high on the list.

When an assault weapons ban is debated, the conversation inevitably becomes a technical and confusing one. While there is no standard definition of an “assault weapon,” much of the focus in the wake of mass shootings is on semiautomatic AR-15 style rifles. Yet most mass shootings, like most gun fatalities in this country, are committed with handguns.

As important, though, the name of the policy includes the word “ban.” Gun control supporters like to mention the backing of “the overwhelming majority of gun owners” for “common-sense policies.” But calling for a ban of any sort just makes it easy for opposing politicians and organizations to cast anyone seeking policy change as a “gun grabber” seeking to take away the Second Amendment rights of responsible and law-abiding gun owners.

To create real and lasting change, we must end the culture war over guns. Instead, gun control groups are helping to perpetuate it.

No decent human being, whether gun owner or not, wants to live in a country with our level of shooting deaths. The most meaningful way to deal with the problem, though, is not to look at how to keep certain guns from all people, but how to keep all guns from certain people — the people almost all of us agree should not have guns.

I have spent the last two years building relationships with leaders in the gun rights community, and have found that this framing leads us to common ground. And it points to five specific moves that together would have an enormous impact:

  • Vigorously pursue and prosecute the small percentage of gun dealers who are knowingly contributing to the illegal gun trade (a trade that is disproportionately hurting communities of color).
  • Identify opportunities to strengthen the background check system by adding prohibited purchasers that we all, including 90% of gun owners, agree should not have guns. For instance, federal rules governing privacy for health records could be modified to allow mental health clinicians to identify those who are a threat to themselves or others, so that they could be temporarily added to the National Instant Check System. This would have to include exemptions for private sales that may make some gun control supporters uncomfortable; but in the end, in combination with the other measures listed here, it would result in a significant improvement to public safety.
  • Invest in a large-scale education and awareness campaign on the dangers of owning and carrying guns, and what can be done to mitigate those dangers. It is crucial that these efforts be led in partnership with gun rights groups and public health experts and that they remain free from any judgment about gun ownership or connection with political advocacy. There are many initiatives already, such as public education about the warning signs of mental illness and suicide, which have proven effective and could be models.

  • Expand on the work of “violence interrupters” and similar programs proven to reduce gun violence in cities.
  • Clearly define what it means to be a federally licensed firearm dealer, with standards that include sales volume. For years, gun control groups have talked about closing the “gun show loophole.” The real problem is not specifically gun shows, it is people who are regularly selling multiple guns to strangers, regardless of the venue, without being required to conduct the same background check that a federally licensed dealer must. Not only does this clearly contribute to straw-man purchasing and gun trafficking, it puts honest dealers at a competitive disadvantage.

When I was considered a leader in the gun control movement, a lot of attention was paid by other groups on how to “rebrand” the pursuit of preventing gun deaths: “Gun control?” “Gun violence prevention?” “Gun safety?”

As a former advertising executive myself, I always found this conversation superficial and frustrating. It takes more than a name and talking points to shape perceptions of any brand, no less such an important social issue. It takes a fundamental truth, a deep empathy for the people you are trying to reach and a disciplined focus on reinforcing that truth with everything you do and say.

The truth is, an assault weapons ban is not the most effective thing we can do to prevent gun violence, and the resulting debate undermines the extent to which the American public agrees on solutions that could bring us closer to what we all want, which is to make our homes, schools and communities safer.

Dan Gross was the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence from 2012 to 2017 and is co-founder of the Center for Gun Rights and Responsibility.