Supporters of gun regulation are celebrating the Senate confirmation this week of Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. President Obama’s choice was vehemently opposed by the National Rifle Association, which objected to Murthy because he had reached the startling conclusion that gun violence, which kills more than 30,000 Americans annually, has a detrimental impact on public health.
Murthy’s confirmation was a rare defeat for the NRA. Yet in the overall context of gun politics, the victory is very small. It has been two years since the horrific mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and Congress is no more likely to craft a legislative response to gun violence today than to hold hearings on the moon.
The incoming Congress will be more hostile to gun regulation than its do-nothing predecessor, ensuring that criminals and crazy people continue to have easy access to firearms. Likewise, legal remedies are a distant hope. Families of first-grade students who were killed in Newtown on Dec. 14, 2012, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the manufacturer, Bushmaster Firearms International, along with the distributor and seller of the gun used in the killings. It is unlikely to succeed, in part because Congress voted in 2005 to protect gun manufacturers from liability.
Political cowardice is an enormous problem, but it’s not the only one. A Pew Research Center survey released last week showed public opinion shifting in favor of gun rights and away from gun regulation. In the poll, 52 percent of Americans prioritized gun rights over gun control, while 46 percent chose the opposite. During the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, the public preferred gun control over gun rights in the Pew poll.
Meanwhile, the gun industry enjoyed a record Black Friday. Gun dealers making sales deluged the FBI’s instant background check system with 175,000 requests the day after Thanksgiving. And this weekend, five days before Christmas, the “Machine Gun America” amusement park will open in Florida. As a sign of how seriously the attraction takes its obligations, only patrons ages 13 or older will be allowed to play with the military-grade killing machines on the premises.
It’s possible that the long decline in gun ownership has hit bottom, at around one third of U.S. households. Political polarization and the siege mentality among many conservatives is almost certainly a factor driving gun sales: According to a 2013 poll by Pew Research, white men account for 61 percent of adult gun owners. Democratic households are much less likely to have a gun than Republican households.
Opposition to gun restrictions has climbed even as the tactics of gun-rights activists have grown more outrageous and the price of radical gun culture remains extravagant. In the past month alone, a felon in West Virginia, who had purchased a gun through Facebook, used it to murder four people before killing himself. In Tulsa, Oklahoma a mother was shot dead by her 3-year-old son. The unregulated gun sale to the West Virginia felon is precisely what the Senate’s failed background check legislation was intended to stop. The accidental killing — one of two in recent weeks resulting from a 3-year-old’s ready access to a loaded gun — typifies the obscene recklessness of too many American gun owners.
Despite a longstanding decline in violent crime and recent political victories for gun regulation in Washington State and elsewhere, gun culture in the United States continues to grow more aggressive. If the recent Pew survey is correct, it may also be growing more popular. The new surgeon general unquestionably has a public-health menace on his hands. The rest of us are confronting a cultural disconnect. But no matter how you characterize the problem, it’s guaranteed to kill many more people.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.