Janine Jackson interviewed Guns Down America’s Igor Volsky about ending gun violence for the March 26, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Other countries have misogyny and racism, untreated mental illness and bar fights and robberies. What they don’t have are weeks like that just passed, in which Americans, reeling from the murders of eight people in Atlanta, woke up to news of 10 people killed in Boulder.
It’s the guns. The difference is the guns.
More and more people in this country seem ready right now to think big about responses to violent law enforcement, inadequate healthcare and onerous student debt. Can we also shift the conversation and the political terrain on gun control?
Here to help us think about that is Igor Volsky, executive director of Guns Down America, and author of the book Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future With Fewer Guns. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Igor Volsky.
Igor Volsky: Thank you so much for having me
JJ: When we hear about horrible things like the killing in Atlanta, in Boulder, in all of the places that we could name, there’s a tendency—journalistic, and maybe just human—to seek more information, more details: What were the circumstances? The motivations? Who is this individual?
Somewhere along the way, one gets the sense that the problem of gun violence is too complicated to address. Whatever measure is being suggested “wouldn’t have prevented Atlanta,” and that’s somehow not a reason that it’s not enough, but a reason to abandon the whole project. I’m wondering, first of all, does pushing past that hopelessness call for a different way of thinking, new goals, or maybe just clarity about what our goals are?
IV: You’re absolutely right. There’s really this sense, oftentimes in the press, that this problem is just too hard, that we already have 400 million guns in circulation, and there’s nothing we can do about it, that we somehow have to pay the price of 100 people dying every day from gun violence because we have a Second Amendment.
And the reality is that none of that is true, that we know exactly what needs to be done in order to save lives. And we know that because states across America have strengthened their gun laws, have invested in communities that are suffering from cyclical everyday gun violence, and have seen significant reductions in their gun suicide rates and in their gun homicide rates.
So these models of democracy, or these “laboratories” of democracy, as Republicans in particular often like to point to, really serve as an example of what we need to do on the national level, in order to have a standard that fits the entire country.
And, secondly, we just need to look overseas at some of our great allies, who have dramatically reduced gun violence by doing three basic things: by, No.1, ensuring that gun manufacturers and gun dealers are actually regulated, and can’t produce incredibly powerful weapons for the civilian market. Those countries raise the standard of gun ownership by requiring gun owners to register their firearm, to get a license to have a firearm in the first place. And they’ve also addressed the root causes of gun violence: things like employment opportunities, housing security, healthcare. So we have the blueprint; we just need to follow it.
JJ: You will hear that “Assault weapon bans don’t help, because most murders happened with handguns,” or “Background checks don’t help, because there’s a lot of resales,” and, “Well, it’s a lot of suicides.”
But if you spell it out to the goal being fewer guns, if you make that the goal, well then that addresses all of those things. And it sounds like what you’re saying has worked in other places: It has a goal of just there being fewer guns out there.
IG: Yeah, the reason why the United States has a death rate that’s about 25% higher than our other peer nations is exactly what you just identified: We have way too many guns, and they are way too easy to get. And until our media and our leaders can have the courage, the political courage, to recognize that reality, and to begin communicating about it to the American people, it’s going to be a challenge to meet the goal of saving lives.
And I have to say: We now have a president in the White House who has done this work before; who—when he was running for the presidency—released one of the boldest gun-violence prevention programs of any presidential candidate; who promised us that his experience in Washington, DC, gave him the skills to work with Democrats and Republicans to get big things done. And so he has a heavy responsibility to follow through on those promises, to address the nation fully about this crisis, and then to work through Congress, diligently and aggressively, to get tighter gun laws across the finish line.
JJ: Let me just bring you back to media for a second. When media tend to move from incident coverage to policy coverage, then reporting on gun control gets often into this kind of static frame, where you hear from opponents and proponents of a particular measure; they both get quoted, sometimes they get quoted in equal amounts. But there’s this kind of backdrop, which is that in this country any restrictions on individual gun ownership face an uphill battle, because it’s enshrined in the law, because the lobby is all-powerful and because this country just loves its guns. These are presented as blanket impediments to change. But how true is that? Is that really an accurate, current depiction of the lay of the land?
IV: Yeah, this false balance that you’re identifying is that you often see in media stories this effort to perpetuate, really, what is a myth about the NRA’s great power and abilities. And this notion of just regurgitating claims that the Second Amendment somehow impedes us from doing anything about this problem is a real hindrance, I think, to the kind of conversations we have publicly about this issue, to the kind of conversations we have with our friends and families, particularly some of them [who] are gun owners, or more politicized gun owners. And the truth of the matter is, the kind of coverage we need on this issue, the kind of press we need on this issue, is one that reflects the science, and the real history.
The overwhelming science in the gun violence space tells us one simple truth: Where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths. And that’s really it. That’s the reality that you have to start from.
So any kind of argument about, “If you have gun restrictions, you’re disarming the good guys,” or, “If you have gun restrictions, that means it will only harm the good guys, because the bad guys will never follow it”—that kind of argument, that the NRA has so successfully gotten the press to parrot for decades, is a real hindrance.
And so I think we hopefully, hopefully, have reached a point where gun violence is so ubiquitous, and support for actually doing something is so widespread, that we will hopefully see less of this effort to just pretend that “Well, nothing at all is possible,” right?
And just a second on the Second Amendment: The history of this is very intriguing to me, because for decades and decades and decades, really up to about 1972, it was hard to find anybody in the press, or within even the gun community, who argued that the Second Amendment is somehow an impediment to gun regulation.
That argument is actually quite new, and it was developed through NRA-funded researchers and NRA-funded lawyers. They birthed this idea that the Second Amendment somehow prevents us from doing what we know we need to do. And oftentimes the media just parrot that invented notion, without actually recognizing that it is certainly not what the Founding Fathers intended, but also doesn’t reflect the reality of how most courts—the Supreme Court to some degree, but also courts across the country—have ruled repeatedly that the amendment allows for pretty significant regulation. And so my hope here is that we can have a different kind of conversation about this issue.
JJ: That was one of the points that scholar Howard Friel made in an important piece for Extra!, for FAIR’s magazine, back in 1996: that media seem to feel they’re charting some middle ground when they say, “They could allow for some restrictions on gun ownership,” and the other point is, “No, there should be no restrictions whatsoever.” And they kind of chart a middle course. Friel’s point is they’re ignoring all of that legislative, judiciary history that you just mentioned, which actually says, “No, there’s no conflict between the Second Amendment and some measures of gun control.”
Let me ask you, finally, I know that at Guns Down, you know that legislation isn’t all there is; you see it as a multifront battle to get us to a safer place with fewer guns. You talked about things that Biden could do. Is there particular legislation afoot that you see moving things forward? What, in general, do you see as roles for the public here? Where can we get involved in making change on this?–
IV: We’re constantly in this cycle of—a gun event happens; usually it’s a mass shooting that grabs headlines. We all talk about, “Oh, things need to be done,” right? We get a lot of press coverage, some of it good, some of it not, about that event. And then we all take a breath and we move on, usually in a matter of days, sometimes, really, in a matter of hours. And the question is, how do we break that cycle?
And I think there are roles for the general public, and there are roles for leadership, right? I think the president needs to actually lead. The kind of enthusiasm and vigor and hard work that he and his administration put into passing the recovery plan, they need to apply to getting background checks across the finish line, they need to apply to getting an assault weapons ban across the finish line. They’ve shown what they can do when they’re motivated and dedicated. And they need to do that.
And to make sure that happens, all of us across the country have to keep the pressure on, have to communicate in any way we can, whether it be on social media, or making calls, or organizing friends and neighbors to do larger pushes, to ensure that the president hears from us. Politicians who’ve been talking about this issue for years, who support reform but haven’t actually pushed hard enough to follow it through, they need to hear from us. And then, of course, we need to also push those lawmakers who aren’t there on the issue yet.
But what I always think is, to first identify what is the path to actually getting something done; to me, that’s getting rid of the filibuster in the Senate, and passing through the reforms I mentioned, with a simple majority vote. And to move the individuals, to target your advocacy at lawmakers and officials who actually have an incentive to listen to what you’re saying, and to make progress. (And I suspect that many of the congressional members on the Republican side don’t have any incentive to compromise on anything, no matter how popular it is in their home states or districts.) So I would ask folks to be targeted in how they do this work.
But I am confident that if all of this aligns, that if we have a president who is committed to acting as he promised, and a public that is cheering him on and pushing him on, we will finally get to a place where we begin to make some serious progress on saving lives in this country.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Igor Volsky, of the group Guns Down America. The book is Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future With Fewer Guns, out from the New Press. Thank you so much, Igor Volsky, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
IV: Thank you.