Why the Republican Party Has Lost the Gun Argument


Guns are an extremely polarizing issue in America. It’s one of the issues on which everyone seems to have an opinion. And both major political parties use their candidates’ and representatives’ stance on guns as a regular litmus test for ideological purity. The result is a super-charged argumentative space in which tempers run high and recriminations run deep.

In such an atmosphere, it is no surprise that data-driven policy-making has left the scene. But if we actually look at the data, the issue ought to be a home-run for the Republicans.

Despite what we all hear every day from the news media and the campaign trail about how how mass shootings are upping the body count of innocents across the country, the reality is that gun violence in America has reached a multi-decade low. In the peak year of 1980, the homicide rate was 10.8 per 100,000 people. Today, it is around 4 per 100,000.

Even more striking is the drop in non-fatal firearm crime. In 1993, there were 725.3 victims per 100,000 people. Today, there are around 175 per 100,000. That’s four times less!

And that rates continued to fall in the years after the so-called assault weapon ban expired. Even the National Research Council acknowledged in 2004 when the ban was lifted that it had done virtually nothing to affect the overall rate of gun violence (which continued on its long-term downward trend, perhaps to the chagrin of some on the left).

All of this should torpedo the Democrats’ primary arguments for restricting gun ownership, yet they continue to win the public relations battle. Why are the Republicans losing?

The answer lies in the fact that the Republicans are equally wedded to unreality when it comes to guns. One need only watch the speeches at the Republican National Convention to understand that fact. The picture they painted was of a lawless nation where people must be free to defend themselves in the face of social breakdown. This jeremiad might be red meat to a conservative base driven to fever pitch by a rabid right wing media, but it is not something that sells to the average voter. Instead, they are sold on the relentless imagery of school shootings and other mass atrocities that gain attention even as overall murder rates drop.

The Republicans essentially feed the Democrats’ narrative by focusing on a sense of growing violence and unease. While some will take this as a call to arm themselves, many others will see it as justification to restrict gun ownership. And the Republicans consistently lose in the public sphere because it is far easier for many people to blame the access to guns for such crimes, rather than to see more arms as a solution.

So what can be done?

Naturally, the answer lies in a libertarian approach. But we need to do more than advocate for the right to self-defense and to uphold the Constitution. That is inherently a defensive strategy, a holding action. Each new offensive from the left threatens to carve off yet another part of the right. They do not need to win the war in one battle. They just need to gradually whittle it down to nothing.

Thus we need a solid offensive tactic. That means abandoning the right’s conventional rhetoric of defense in a lawless world and instead show the demonstrable compatibility between growing gun ownership and falling gun violence. That is the reality in which we live. Now we need to wake others up to it.

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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.