Skip to main content

Fear drives opposition to gun control

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 12:47 PM EDT, Mon July 30, 2012
Hand guns are displayed at a firing range July 22, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado.
Hand guns are displayed at a firing range July 22, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum says public support for stricter gun control has steadily waned
  • Despite gun views, fewer Americans today keep a gun in their home, he says
  • Frum says people realize that gun ownership is risky to themselves and their families
  • Frum: Local TV news overplays violence, drives up fear, keeps people focused on gun rights

Editor's note: David Frum is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast and a CNN contributor. He is the author of seven books, including a new novel, "Patriots."

(CNN) -- There will be no new gun laws after the Aurora shooting for the basic reason that the American people do not want them.

Over the past 20 years, support for gun control has collapsed in the United States.

Three-quarters of Americans want to keep the right to own handguns, weapons whose only function is to kill human beings at close range. In 1959, 60% of Americans wanted handguns banned outright for all but police officers.

Little to gain, lots to lose for Obama and Romney on guns

David Frum
David Frum

Responding to public opinion, states have loosened gun laws to allow citizens to carry weapons with them almost anywhere they go. In Georgia, Arizona, Tennessee and Virginia, it's legal to carry a gun into a bar. Guns and booze: What could go wrong?

But here's the odd thing: At the same time as Americans have become more enthusiastic about gun rights, fewer and fewer Americans actually want to own a gun themselves.

In the 1990s, the proportion of Americans who kept a gun in the home tumbled from one-half to one-third. And while gun ownership has risen in the Obama years, it remains lower than in the 1960s when strong majorities of the American people demanded stricter laws.

How can we make sense of this weird divergence between beliefs and behavior?

No gun law changes likely after shooting
When should we debate gun control?
Va. Senate candidates debate gun control
Bloomberg blasts politics on guns

Americans support gun rights because they believe guns are necessary for self-protection. As the Georgia lawmaker who introduced the law allowing guns to be carried in bars explained:

"Folks were being robbed, assaulted -- it was becoming an issue of personal safety. The police aren't going to be able to protect you. They're going to be checking out the crime scene after you and your family's been shot or injured or assaulted or raped."

At the same time, people hesitate to own guns themselves because they recognize that keeping a gun in the house is a dangerous thing to do. A gun in the house minimally doubles the risk that a household member will kill himself or herself. (Some studies put the increase in suicide risk as high as 10 times.) An American is 50% more likely to be shot dead by his or her own hand than to be shot dead by a criminal assailant. More than 30,000 Americans injure themselves with guns every year.

The good news is that as America becomes safer, fewer and fewer Americans feel the need for a weapon. The overall violent crime index has tumbled by one-third since the early 1990s. The worst crimes -- murder and rape -- have declined even more. American citizens are safer today from crime than at almost any time since record-keeping began, very likely safer than at any time in the history of the country.

Americans perceive these improvements in the safety of their immediate neighborhood. Back in the early 1980s, half of Americans said they feared to walk alone at night near their own homes. By the early 2000s, only one-third expressed such fears. (Those fears have ticked up a little in the last few years, even as crime rates continue to fall, but again they remain way below historic peaks.)

Yet unfortunately, Americans are not, however, nearly so accurate at assessing national trends. In the mid-2000s, when crime rates were declining fast, almost 70% of Americans wrongly said that crime rates had risen over the past year.

Analysis: Why gun controls are off the agenda in America

What force on earth could convince Americans that down is up? The most powerful force of all: television.

TV news -- and especially local TV news -- is dominated by news of violent crime, the more spectacular and murderous the better. TV news creates a false picture of a country under attack by rampaging criminals, and especially nonwhite criminals. The people who watch the most TV news, Americans older than 50, also happen to be the group most likely to own a gun.

Only one-fifth of young Americans own a gun; one-third of over-50 Americans do. Republicans are twice as likely to own a gun as Democrats. Maybe not so coincidentally, Republicans are more likely to watch the scariest news channel of them all: Fox. Whites are twice as likely to own a gun as nonwhites -- and it may also not be a coincidence that gun purchases have suddenly spiked since November 2008.

Proponents of gun control are baffled that horrific massacres such as the one in Aurora, Colorado, do not lead to stricter gun control. They have their causation backward.

The more terrifyingly criminal the world looks, the more ineffective law enforcement seems, the more Americans demand the right to deadly weapons with which to defend themselves. It is local TV programming directors, not the National Rifle Association, who are tirelessly persuading Americans that they need to strap a gun to their legs before heading to the mall.

And what will change those attitudes is not more atrocity stories, but instead the reassuring truth: The United States is safe and getting safer, safer than ever before in its history.

The police can protect you, and will, and do. And a gun in the house is not a guarantee of personal security -- it is instead a standing invitation to family tragedy. The cold dead hands from which they pry the gun are very unlikely to be the hands of a heroic minuteman defending home and hearth against intruders. They are much more likely to be the hands of a troubled adolescent or a clumsy child.

In the land of the Second Amendment, nobody will take your guns away. But if you love your children, you should get rid of them voluntarily.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT