I Helped Lead the Gun Control Movement. It’s Asking the Wrong Questions.

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 percent 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 (@DanGrossPAX) 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.

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