Jun 28, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Gun control advocates say culture, not just laws, must change

From left to right: Moderator Jenn White, Jennifer Carlson, John Feinblatt, Clark Neily and Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) at the 2023 Aspen Ideas Festival. Photo: Dan Bayer/Aspen Institute

After hitting a wall in Congress, gun control advocates are increasingly saying they'll need to change the country's culture before they can change its laws.

  • That was the message from advocates and experts in conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado on Wednesday.

Why it matters: One year ago this week Congress passed its first major gun safety reform bill in decades, which included enhanced background checks for those under 21, funding for mental health and school safety and incentives for states to implement "red flag" laws.

  • But federal policymakers have been unable to pass further legislation since. And the U.S. is on pace for a record year of mass killings.

What they're saying: "It's not just laws," said Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), a leading voice for gun control in Congress and survivor of gun violence herself.

  • "You have to look at this cultural crisis really holistically, organically," she said, "just like we've changed any other culture." She compared it to past societal movements away from cigarettes or towards support for same-sex marriage.
  • "It doesn't happen that way when you're dealing with a cultural shift and change."

"We make a mistake when we just debate the laws," agreed John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country, whose action fund endorsed hundreds of candidates in the 2022 election.

Zoom in: Community violence intervention programs are showing promise as a way to make change, said Jennifer Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Arizona studying the politics of guns in American life.

  • She cited programs that leverage people with gang experience to mitigate gang-related gun violence on the ground or that train gun sellers to look out for signs of suicide in customers.
  • "Not law enforcement, not a therapist, but someone that can just stop and say, 'Do you really want to buy this gun right now?'"
  • It's crucial, she said, "to actually remember the power that we have as fellow citizens to engage one another."

Be smart: Last year's bipartisan gun violence prevention bill included funding for such intervention programs, McBath highlighted. And she's proposed another bill to allocate $6.5 billion for more, though it has not progressed.

Plus: Feinblatt also called on the firearm industry to "take some responsibility" by instituting product reforms, like handprint recognition technology to ensure only owners can use their weapons and re-weighting triggers to prevent toddlers from accidentally discharge them.

  • "This is not about saying, 'Put them out of business.' This is about making a safer product."

The bottom line: Clark Neily, a lawyer at the Cato Institute who defends Second Amendment rights, also highlighted the importance of Americans getting outside of their political corners on gun policy.

  • "If you want to be effective at changing policy ... you have a choice. You can either engage with people who don't already agree with you … or you can express disdain."
Go deeper