I’ve got a question for everyone reading this: How many of your problems in the last four years were you able to solve only because of your ready access to an army-issue M-16 assault rifle?
If your answer was greater than or equal to one, don’t fret — the federal government’s black helicopters won’t be landing in your backyard to take your guns away anytime soon. As of last week, the National Rifle Association is on the case, buying more than $1.3 million worth of airtime in major swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
The purpose of these ads is simple: to communicate to gun-owning voters that President Barack Obama, his Attorney General Eric Holder and the two Supreme Court justices that he nominated to the bench, Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, are rabidly anti-gun and support a ban on assault weapons.
There are a couple of interesting things to note about these attack ads. For one, they come quite late in the campaign. With only a week left, it’s hard to imagine that time still remains for a narrative shift that will persuade the mythical creature known as the undecided voter. Furthermore, the buy just isn’t that big — $1.3 million doesn’t buy what it used to now that super PAC’s and extraordinarily rich campaign donors dominate the airwaves.
What is most interesting, however, is what this late, under-powered advertising buy says about the Obama administration’s stance on gun control. Despite the ancient quotations the NRA used to make them seem rabidly anti-gun, the administration has been nearly silent on these issues. Obama hasn’t championed the assault weapons ban, pushed for more extensive background checks or introduced legislation supporting other progressive gun control programs since very shortly after his 2009 inauguration.
It’s not that he hasn’t had the opportunity. There have been more shootings in the United States since 2009 than I can remember. We’ve had two major shootings in Wisconsin alone in the last few months. Sure, there are other countries in the world with more severe problems with gun violence, but America can hardly claim to be one of world’s most progressive countries on gun control if our percentage of homicides by firearm is higher than those of Nicaragua or Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, gun lobbies retain so much political control in this country that not even the shooting of a congresswoman could get the administration to speak directly about the problem.
Arguments about gun safety can usually be grouped into one of two categories. One position is that the proliferation of small arms makes daily life more dangerous because there is a greater probability that someone can procure a gun and use it. The flip side of the debate is that guns make people safer, because if a mentally unstable person starts shooting, there’s a greater chance that a responsible gun-toting individual will be there to take them down before they commit any more violence. Neither of these arguments fits with the reality of the situation. Because guns are too easy to access, there is no political way to stem the tide of them. America needs to examine other strategies to reduce gun deaths.
For starters, we should support programs that provide mental health support to troubled individuals. If we can’t regulate the guns, we can at least help those with the desire to use them violently. Furthermore, politicians can fight for more restrictions and regulations that prohibit firearms in public places at a local level. Taking your AK-47 to the park because there’s no law against it makes about as much sense as getting drunk at 10:30 a.m. on a Wednesday simply because we repealed prohibition 90 years ago.
In a Wisconsin State Journal poll asking voters what they considered to be the most important issue of the election, gun control ranked dead last. I hope this means no one in Wisconsin will vote based on these attack ads, but I also hope it doesn’t mean that we don’t care. The next time there’s a shooting, let’s not forget the things we might have done to prevent it. Then maybe next time, we’ll actually take action to prevent gun violence.
Nathaniel Olson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in political science, history and psychology.