The issue of gun control has once again become a national debate, sparked by the Feb. 14 Parkland, Fla., mass high school shooting and the ensuing worldwide “March For Our Lives” movement that attracted scores of protesters.
The Wheel spoke with Professor of Economics Shomu Banerjee, Associate Professor of Political Science Andra Gillespie and Interim Director for the Injury Prevention Research Center at Emory and Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine David Wright, who shared their thoughts on where the conversation on gun control is headed and potential policy changes.
The Wheel’s “Round Table” series aims to broadcast the opinions of Emory faculty and staff who specialize in relevant areas.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Valerie Sandoval, The Emory Wheel: How has public opinion shifted on gun control since the Parkland shooting? What do you think the effects of the national student protests will be on gun control legislation?
Shomu Banerjee: I was very surprised that the aftermath of the Parkland shooting has been very different from that of Columbine or Sandy Hook. My personal feeling was that after Sandy Hook, if that could not move people to enact gun legislation of some kind, nothing would. But somehow this last one has really taken me by surprise. I suppose it’s because a large number of the people who were affected are young adults and they are vocal, and many of them are eligible to vote or will soon be eligible. They can feel that the future belongs to them. I’ve lived in this country for 37 years, and this is the first time in 37 years that I’m seeing the needle move towards some amount of sensible gun control.
Andra Gillespie: In looking at Gallup polls over time … in general there is a lot of support for gun control, and there has been for a pretty long time. After Sandy Hook, based on when the question had been previously asked, there was a spike in the Gallup poll, and there appears to have been a spike since the previous time the question had been asked after the Las Vegas shooting. It looks like the polls right after Parkland suggest that there was a similar spike in support of gun control measures. That in and of itself is not necessarily surprising. Looking back at old surveys, we see local spikes after Columbine. I think the question is, can you get a gun control measure through a hyperpartisan, hyperpolarized Congress, and would U.S. President Donald J. Trump sign a gun control bill if it were put on his desk?
David Wright: I think we get a sense that this movement has a little more legs to it than the prior calls, and frankly I think a lot of that is because of students driving this. The youth are driving this. In terms of the effects of the protests on legislation, who knows? We don’t know yet. There are two sides to this. If they fizzle out now, then there will probably be a very little effect. If they continue to grow and gain momentum, and these young people are able to convince legislators that they’re going to be voting and that they’re going to get out and campaign against people who are preventing gun research and preventing even a discussion, then that’s going to make a difference. But the momentum has to keep going.
EW: How does the National Rifle Association (NRA) influence the politics of gun control?
SB: The NRA is an extremely powerful lobbying group. To me, it’s kind of disgusting how so many of our politicians are in the pocket of lobbying groups in general. The NRA in particular, their agenda is very clear — they want to be able to sell more guns. The whole purpose of the second amendment has been subverted and lost since 2008 with the Scalia inspired Supreme Court judgment of District of Columbia v. Heller.
AG: There are a number of things to think about in terms of the role that interest groups play. They do support candidates, but I think there’s this common phrasing about gun control which suggests that the NRA makes a donation to a candidate, then that candidate gets elected and then the NRA then owns that candidate, but the relationship between a candidate and an interest group is actually a little bit more symbiotic. There are people who seek out the endorsement of the NRA because it is important for their constituency, or they seek out the support of the NRA because they already agree with them. The question or the problem that people are raising is that, if a legislator’s views about gun control evolve over time because of circumstances like Parkland, Las Vegas or Sandy Hook, how courageous are they going to be to articulate a change in support, and are they willing to weather the consequences of publicly articulating that they’re changing their mind on an issue. Doing so could mean that they would lose financial support from the NRA. The NRA could also try to actively mobilize their supporters against them by either telling them to vote for an opponent or by looking for another candidate to support who could run against them.
DW: In various types of ways. The NRA was actually created to increase gun safety, its origins were around gun safety. It has been taken over by a very perturbed, in my mind, wing, a more extremist kind of view, and now it’s doing the opposite. They’re not even allowing gun safety to be discussed in a useful form. I don’t know how they do it other than the power of the purse and being able to influence congressmen, being able to scare people by telling them that the second amendment is going to go away, convincing people that there is a slippery slope of some kind. That if we make common sense accommodations to make guns safer, that for some reason that will all of a sudden turn into no guns. The bottom line is, I don’t care what your politics are, I don’t care if you believe that everybody should have a gun or whether you believe that nobody should have a gun, the fact that we’re not allowed to do research on it and to discuss it openly and have some dialogue around it is just absurd and insane, and it’s leading to what we have now.
EW: What do you think of Trump’s proposal to arm teachers? Do you think it could be implemented logistically and what would that look like?
SB: I’ve been practicing the Japanese martial art of Aikido for the past 25 years …and even though we do so many techniques against armed attacks and things like that, if someone came into my office with a gun would I be able to disarm that person? In principle, yes, but in practice, who the heck knows? I don’t think that even very seriously trained individuals can make the right decision at the right time. Giving guns to teachers is stupid. We are here to educate students; we are not here to protect you or to protect ourselves. That’s why we have a state. It would be ridiculous, for example, if I had to pay money for an armed century to guard my house every day. I think that would be stupid — I expect my local police to take care of things like burglaries and all that. That’s the whole point of why we pay taxes and why we are citizens of a country. Arming teachers is completely the wrong way to go. Human beings are extremely fallible — every single one of us. People do stupid things when they have access to a gun. Accidents happen, or you could get mad at your boss and shoot your boss, who knows? I feel that it shouldn’t be left to chance in the sense that arming teachers is going to make us safer on the off chance that they will be able to use the gun correctly, at the right time, have access to it, be able to cock it, remove the safety and shoot the person who’s trying to commit the crime. To me, that’s a pretty heroic assumption. It’s not going to happen.
AG: I can’t point to any evidence right now about effectiveness. I think what President Trump is thinking is that there are a lot of veterans who are going into teaching. The veterans have weapons training or there are people who are avid hunters, who have acquired weapons training through other means who are already employed in schools. So you’ve got this ready population that I think he assumes is pretty evenly dispersed throughout the population to be incentivized with bonus pay to provide additional security for their students because they already care and they know the terrain. I think the bigger question to ask is how many people who are weapons-trained are actually employed in schools, and can we determine if they are concentrated in some places versus other places? Also, how easy would it be to train the teachers to double as school personnel? I think logistically that would be more difficult than he thinks that it would be and in that respect, I think it would raise some red flags. The other thing that I would look at would be: do teachers support this kind of initiative? From what I have seen just from casual news consumption is that teachers unions have come out squarely against this idea. As somebody who is not a K-12 teacher but as somebody who is also in the classroom, this not something I support.
DW: It’s nuts, it’s just nuts, there’s no way around it. Teachers are going to be locked in their rooms, they’re not going to be out guarding the hallways. The first child that is killed by a teacher accidentally with a gun is going to cause an outrage, and that’s going to happen because if you put loaded weapons in a school where someone could accidentally get access to them, who knows what could happen. Police officers train weekly, monthly, soldiers train every day to handle weapons in a safe manner and still, if you watch the news every night, police officers make decisions that turn out to, in retrospect, have not been good decisions. And now you’re asking a teacher who is there to teach the ABCs to carry a weapon and protect the school? It’s insane. In terms of logistics, it depends on what the end result you’re looking for is. Could you put weapons in the hands of teachers? Of course you can, … but the question is can you do it and get the effect you want to get? I think the answer to that is no. The amount of training teachers would need to be able to be the equivalent of a police officer or resource officer or combatant is not logistically possible. Not on a wide scale. There may be an ex police officer who is teaching, there may be a few ex soldiers who came back home and retired and went into teaching, maybe those guys and gals would be trainable but not on a wide scale basis.
EW: Do you think the U.S. will look to the stricter gun control policies of other countries, such as Australia or Japan?
SB: I don’t think we will, because we like to think that we are exclusive, that we are one of a kind, that we are the smartest people in the world, we have the best society in the world, which we don’t. Gun control is an area where the evidence shows that the rest of world doesn’t have these kind of incidents and we do.
AG: In the near future, no. We have the Second Amendment. We also have a gun culture and we’ve had a really high number of high profile shootings that have not sparked the type of gun control legislation that one would expect after the circumstances.
EW: How likely is it that the U.S. will adopt stricter gun control policies?
SB: It’s going to take time, because basically a whole new generation of younger people has to come into the majority. All the people from the Parkland shooting generation, if they’re moved enough to feel that this is unacceptable and that children should be safe in schools, and things like that, very uncontroversial stuff, then eventually the needle will move. If enough people die, then eventually the needle will move. Is it going to happen in the next two, three, four or five years? I don’t know, I’m a little skeptical because, like I said, I’ve lived here for 37 years and I haven’t seen that much happen. But you know, Millennials have changed a lot of things. If there is enough demand from the younger people for gun control then it can make a difference.
AG: We might get some of it. A year from now will we have hit all of these goals? I would say probably not. I would tell the students who are protesting that they have to be prepared that this fight is going to take a long time and it’s going to require constant vigilance. They’ll get some of it, I’m sure that there will be ways that gun control will factor heavily into the 2018 election cycle. But the movement is going to be punctuated by moments of victory and moments of frustration, and I think that students that are involving themselves in this movement need to be prepared for both.
DW: I have no idea. I am often and even to the point of frequently stunned and disappointed by the decisions that are made in our houses of government. I have no way to predict that. If history tells us anything, not likely. I think it would help if we were allowed to do research on gun control. I think people respond to data. The approach has been, and largely pushed by the NRA and others, to not do any research at all because of the fear that the research might show that we have a problem.