Jim is a 77-year-old conservative from Arizona. A lifetime member of the NRA, he got his first gun — a .22-caliber rifle — at age 7, when his grandfather decided he was old enough to learn about safety. He has owned guns ever since, and regularly takes target practice at a gun club. When Jim thinks about the shooting in Las Vegas, he tells me he believes we must get a handle on mental health, and that 99.9 percent of gun owners are not crazies.
Then, he surprises me.
“All of this said, our gun laws need significant improvement,” Jim starts. “How about removing bump stocks from existence? Or requiring background checks on all gun show buyers?” Jim continues with detailed recommendations about mandatory waiting periods for gun purchases, regulations for ammunition sales, and more.
In my ongoing research with voters, there is significant common ground on gun control. Over 80 percent are supportive of additional regulation. Across the political spectrum, voters agree with Jim on universal background checks, waiting periods, and banning sales of guns to people convicted of a violent crime, and much more — and this is supported by a recent national poll by Quinnipiac University.
Unlike other issues I discuss with voters, the differences in their views about guns are more about personal experience and less about political affiliation. Their perspective depends on whether they live in Gun Country. Gun Country is defined neither by whether their state is red or blue nor about whom they voted for in the presidential election. It’s more about their own community.
Voters outside of Gun Country denounce America’s gun culture. They are concerned about America’s 300 million guns, the media glorification of violence, and the number of children who get shot every year. They question why anyone would ever need an assault weapon, and are especially negative about Congress’s resistance to any legislative changes. While they don’t necessarily believe that gun control would prevent mass shootings, they think it is a critically important step. Most want to close gun show loopholes, but have not been to a gun show; they want to ban assault weapons, but make no distinction between semiautomatic and automatic weapons; and they strongly support mandatory waiting periods for gun purchases, but would never actually buy one.
Other voters outside of Gun Country just don’t have a lot of energy for the issue. Carl, a Trump supporter from New York, says, “I am a Republican, but this is not something I have a lot of interest in, as guns are just not part of my lifestyle.”
In Gun Country, it’s different.
“You have to realize that I was raised here,” explains Sharon from Indiana. “We are law-abiding good country folk who just want to enjoy life and take care of our families, and we are not looking for an opportunity to annihilate our neighbors.”
People in Gun Country talk about the zen quality they get from shooting a gun, the gratification they get from their ability to place a piece of lead in a target precisely. Jacob, an Ohio farmer, likens it to the feeling of a great baseball hit or a really good golf shot. Adds Leslie from North Carolina, “It’s not uncommon here to have a lengthy discussion about guns with a perfect stranger and to actually bond over our shared interest.”
Says Linda, a Clinton voter from South Carolina, “When I lived in Massachusetts, I never had any desire to own guns, because there was a general lack of interest in them by the public. Since being in the South, I have learned to shoot guns. I have bought guns, shipped and transferred guns, and even given them as gifts. It is a different world, and I know many women who love to shoot as much as men do.”
In Gun Country, they also talk about having guns for protection in places where police aren’t close by. Having a gun is like buying a home security system or a fire extinguisher. So when they talk about gun control laws, the conversation is more specific and technical.
Joe from Oklahoma explains, “Every time I buy a weapon at a retail dealer, I wait while they do the check, and it is rarely more than a half-hour delay. Honestly, some of the characters I have seen at gun shows would give me pause. I am also fine with new rules that limit clip capacity to maybe 10 rounds for all rifles and pistols larger than .22-caliber.”
Bruce, a Trump voter in Gun Country, puts it another way. “There is no need for assault rifles by civilians, or anything that converts such weapons to automatics. A fully automatic firearm can fire repeatedly and quickly as long as you hold down the trigger, but a semiautomatic fires only once when you pull the trigger. The weapon we need to ban is automatic — and that includes any gizmos that convert guns to automatic.”
Why doesn’t all of this support lead to progress on gun control legislation — or at least to restoration of the ban on high-capacity magazines and assault rifles championed by Ronald Reagan? Because of what Gun Country voters hear from the NRA.
The NRA spent $50 million in the last election to make sure members knew that that “Hillary wants to take away all of your guns.” Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, famously told his membership that if the Democrats gain control of the government, “you can kiss your guns goodbye.” Voters in Gun Country talk about a barrage of phone calls, postcards, and flyers from the NRA, explaining that Democrats are scheming to prevent the average private citizen from owning guns at all. The message from the NRA gets reinforced by anti-gun politicians on the other side who throw around terms that Gun Country sees as incorrect or misleading, such as using violent crime statistics in Chicago and generalizing them to the rest of the country. The result? Voters feel that the NRA may be overzealous, but that ardent advocates of increased gun control are completely out of touch with the culture of civility and responsibility that is part of their community.
For the people of Gun Country, as long as the NRA and the anti-gun extremists own the conversation, nothing can change. Instead of shared interests, we get a meaningful divide that doesn’t need to exist in the first place.
There is common ground on gun control. Americans in and out of Gun Country are disgusted and horrified by events such as Las Vegas, and agree that gun control is both important and inadequate in the face of those who have suffered. It’s time to listen to one another and make progress.
Clarification: The voters in this column were given pseudonyms to protect their identity.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 200 Clinton voters and 200 Trump voters weekly since last December. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan.