Proving there is no statute of limitations on political opportunism, this week former President Bill Clinton used the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the tragic school shooting in Littleton, Colo. to pen an op-ed pushing the modern gun control agenda. In doing so, Clinton adopted several of the tired falsehoods that have become attendant to this debate.
In recalling a White House conference on school violence that touched upon school shootings in 1999, Clinton noted, “This was a year before Columbine, when our nation did not foresee how increasingly frequent such attacks would become…” This passage is intended to give the impression that school violence and school shootings are common occurrences that have increased since the 1990s. This is not true.
As we note elsewhere this week, research from Northeastern University Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy James Alan Fox has made clear that schools are safer than they were in the 1990s. A summary of Fox’s research published by Northeastern in 2018 explained that “Mass school shootings are incredibly rare events.”
Citing an interview with Fox, the article also stated,
Four times the number of children were killed in schools in the early 1990s than today, Fox said. “There is not an epidemic of school shootings,” he said, adding that more kids are killed each year from pool drownings or bicycle accidents.
Casting doubt on the efficacy of the gun control policies Clinton has offered to eliminate such violence, Fox went on to state, “The thing to remember is that these are extremely rare events, and no matter what you can come up with to prevent it, the shooter will have a workaround.”
Continuing his overheated rhetoric, Clinton stated that after the Littleton shooting, and another shooting in Fort Worth, Texas in 1999, “American schools and churches, which should be havens of learning, fellowship, and refuge, had been transformed into warzones of automatic weapons and explosives.” Here Clinton employed the well-worn anti-gun tactic of conflating comparatively rare automatic firearms with commonly owned semi-automatic firearms.
Automatic firearms have been extensively regulated by the federal government, including stringent transfer requirements, since the National Firearms Act of 1934. Moreover, the manufacture of new automatic firearms for the civilian market was halted by the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 (FOPA).
Gun control advocates like Clinton have long understood that dishonestly conflating the commonly-owned semi-automatic firearms used by Americans for self-defense and the shooting sports with automatic firearms accrues to their political benefit. Gun control group the Violence Policy Center has admitted to the benefits of this disinformation campaign. In their 1988 report “Assault Weapons and Accessories in America,” the group said of commonly-owned semi-automatic firearms:
The weapons' menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.
Later in the piece, Clinton referenced the hastily-enacted legislative response to the recent shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, stating:
More recently, the murder on March 15 of 50 Muslim worshipers in Christchurch in New Zealand led to an almost immediate ban on the kinds of semi-automatic weapons used by the killer, but their parliamentary system is different than our political reality in America, in which a minority with strong views can thwart even popular legislation, supported by hard evidence.
This passage gives the impression that a ban on commonly owned semi-automatic firearms is politically popular in the U.S. and that such a ban is supported by scientific evidence. Again, this is not true.
An October 2018 Gallup poll asked survey takers, “Are you for or against a law which would make it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles?” A scant 40 percent of respondents supported such a measure, while 57 percent were opposed. Previous iterations of the same poll from 2011, 2012, 2016, and 2017 found that more respondents opposed a ban on semi-automatic firearms than supported it.
As for Clinton’s purported “hard evidence,” a 2004 federally-funded study that sought to determine the effects of the 1994 Clinton “assault weapons” ban came to the conclusion that “the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.” Further research by the RAND Corporation found no convincing evidence that banning “assault weapons” or “large” capacity magazines has an effect on mass shootings or violent crime.
A 2012 Department of Justice National of Institute survey of gun research came to a similar conclusion. The memorandum pointed out that “[a]ssault weapons are not a major contributor to gun crime” and that “a complete elimination of assault weapons would not have a large impact on gun homicides.” The report also explained that so-called “universal” background check measures would not be effective absent further intrusive gun control measures, including national registration requirements.
In the closing paragraphs, Clinton attempted to wish a mass movement for gun control into existence. The former president wrote that following last year’s shooting in Parkland, Fla., “Young people from all corners of the country are making gun legislation a voting issue … .” Clinton went on to add “the powerful example of today’s young activists, and the enduring commitment of Columbine survivors and their supporters give us hope that we can … reverse the political polarization surrounding the gun safety issue.”
To be clear, Clinton does not want to “reverse the political polarization” on guns. Rather, the former president wants his opponents to acquiesce to his gun control positions.
However, even his notion that tragedies will dampen political polarization is flawed. Recent political science research out of Tufts University and published by the British Journal of Political Science suggested the exact opposite.
A piece for Tufts.edu summarized the study by noting that it,
showed that after each mass shooting, rather than moving toward consensus, public opinion became more polarized, with no net movement toward or away from stricter gun regulations. Democrats were more likely to support greater gun control, while Republicans were inclined to support fewer regulations.
As for today’s youth making support for gun control a voting issue, there’s not much evidence of that either. A March 2019 Gallup poll asked Americans “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?” A grand total of one percent answered “Guns/Gun control.”
Rather than provide any insight into the ongoing gun debate, Clinton’s inaccurate op-ed will remind readers why he was known as “Slick Willy” during his White House tenure and will have gun owners breathing a sigh of relief that he is penning columns as a private citizen rather than as First Gentleman.