A Modest Proposal to Change U.S. Gun Culture

Here are two facts about the United States.

  1. The United States is awash in firearms.
  2. Effective gun control regulation appears to be nearly impossible, the result of strong grassroots political support for maximalist firearm ownership.

To those two facts, I will add an opinion.

  • No matter how horribly tragic events mass shooting events such as the Parkland, Las Vegas, and Sandy Hook massacres are, in terms of sheer deadliness, “everyday” gun violence—murders, suicides, and accidental shootings—is worse.

It is possible that increasing the presence of firearms in schools would mitigate the scourge of mass shootings in schools, although (1) I doubt it and (2) the costs are that we further expand the militarization of American society. But arming teachers and coaches will not address the scourge of everyday gun violence.

I personally favor very active firearms regulations, roughly similar to those in place in Israel. However, implementing such regulations is politically unfeasible in the United States.

What strategies are left, then, for addressing gun violence? I believe that the solution can be found by looking to one of the most effective public policy action groups of the twentieth century: Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Since its founding in 1980, MADD has played a critical role in changing national opinions about drunk driving. On the surface, drunk driving and gun violence share some important similarities. Drinking and guns are legal. Drinking and guns are fun. Most people can drink responsibly; most people can use guns responsibly. It would prove politically impossible to ban alcohol as a way to stop drunk driving (we have tried, of course). So too with banning guns.

MADD’s approach is not to oppose drinking, but to change the way that people interact with alcohol. MADD’s simple message is that drinking and driving is fundamentally irresponsible and no one should do it. The argument is not against drinking, or against driving, but against mixing them together. MADD also provides people with a tool to solve the problem that they might want to drink and they might want to drive: the designated driver. MADD has not ended drunk driving, but it has certainly helped to change U.S. culture around drunk driving.

MADD’s success lies with the clarity of its message and the solution that it provides. How might one apply that to U.S. gun culture?

One possibility would be to advance the argument that firearms are fundamentally dangerous. This is true—that’s why they exist, and gun manufacturers assure you that firearms are indeed deadly tools for inflicting harm on other living beings. If firearms are fundamentally dangerous, it follows that no responsible gun owner would want them available to anyone else who might use them accidentally or maliciously. Responsible gun owners do not allow guns to fall into the hands of others. There is no respectable pro-gun position that would admit irresponsible gun storage as a core principle. Yes, many people drink and drive without killing anyone, and so too do many people leave guns on their nightstands without killing anyone. But even if this is legal, it is not what a responsible gun owner does.

That’s the message. What’s the technology? The community armory. One way to guarantee that guns are maximally secure from accidental or malicious misuse is to store them outside of the home, in a location convenient to the gun owner but secured against theft or accidental discovery. There is even a small business opportunity here: Sally’s Gun Storage or Joe’s Community Firearms Locker. Such for-profit gun storage facilities exist already. The task is simply to change the conversation around how we interact with guns. Guns are legal, and they are fun, but they do not belong in the home or on the person unless you plan to use them. When you’re done, you put them back where they can be secure. That’s what responsible gun ownership means.

There is one additional wrinkle. MADD’s task is made much easier by the fact that laws exist that criminalize drunk driving, even if there is no accident or victim. Many people do not realize that most states also criminalize handling firearms while intoxicated, even if one has a concealed carry permit and even if there is no accident or victim. Increasing the penalties for possession of a firearm while intoxicated, rigorously enforcing those laws, and publicizing these efforts as responding to the health and safety crisis that it is—together, this might help to change the conversation about what responsible gun ownership means.

I am under no illusions that a change in U.S. gun culture would be easy. I am also, however, skeptical that there is a legal solution to the scourge of gun violence that is politically implementable.

Section Diversity and APSA 2017

Two weeks ago, the Diversity Committee of the Society for Political Methodology released a diversity report (PDF) that identified, in blunt terms, that the SPM

faces severe diversity challenges. There is a disproportionately low number of women and minorities in the field of political methodology in all spheres- graduate student body, assistant professors, tenured professors, journal editors, etc.

Although the data in its report are striking on their terms, even more interesting was the comparison of the Political Methodology section with the rest of APSA’s organized sections. Figure 3 in the report (tweeted by Patrick Egan and based on data from Jacob Montgomery) shows that Political Methodology has the fewest women as a percentage of all section members of any APSA organized sections.

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One question that follows from this is whether or not the APSA annual meeting program reflects similar patterns. Comparing gender breakdown by section membership and gender breakdown by participants in the annual meeting would be one way to see if, for example, the annual meeting reflects-and, as a result, might reinforce-such gender imbalances across sections.

This is an issue that many of us care about. I was co-organizer of the Comparative Politics organized section with Sara Goodman, and we thought explicitly about “manels” but not directly about the overall gender balance of all of our panels and whether or not it matched our section membership. However, APSA has generously provided us with demographic data for all participants in the 2017 annual meeting. That allows us to not only compare the gender balance across different sections (not just our own), but also to check (using Jacob Montgomery’s data) whether or not they reflect section membership.

Here is what we have found.

Annual Meeting 2017 versus APSA Membership

The black dots correspond to Montgomery’s data on the percentage of each section’s membership that is female. The green dots, by contrast, are the percentage of each section’s total panel participants (all chairs, discussants, presenters, and authors) that are female. Because many people argue that the roles of “chair” and “discussant” allow for only token participation, the red dots are the percentage of each section’s authors and presenters only that are female.

We learn from this exercise that many sections are representative of their membership, but not all are. New Political Science and Race, Ethnicity, and Politics, for example, have a lower percentage of women as members than they do women as presenters. The reverse is true for Qualitative Methods. Comparative Politics (our section) was about as diverse at APSA 2017 according to gender as one might expect given our membership. The same is true of Political Methodology; while far below average relative to the general APSA membership (35%), APSA participation does reflects its section membership.

There is much to think about here. One question that might follow is why there is such limited diversity in section membership among those sections at the bottom of this figure. Their panels at APSA are more diverse than we’d otherwise expect. To the extent that section membership matters-and I believe that it does-this would be one area in which the discipline might focus its efforts.