Proponents of gun control are dismayed by these political developments, citing evidence that New Mexico, in addition to having the open landscape that so lures gun enthusiasts, also has the nation's second-highest per capita homicide rate as well as a youth suicide rate twice the national average--two-thirds of these suicides are carried out with guns, most of which belong to the family of the victim. They also produce statistics (disputed by the pro-gun lobby) showing that concealed-carry laws don't help protect law-abiding civilians from violent crime, and they point out that one of the few gun-control successes in recent years was the assault-weapons ban, which, until it expired last year, helped keep extremely potent weaponry off America's streets while not limiting hunters' rights to own less powerful arms. "They're not good for public safety, and they're not good for public health," says Bill Jordan of New Mexico Voices for Children. "People don't want them, but there's a powerful gun lobby. And that's very sad."
Yet New Mexico's gun-control advocates admit they have lost the debate in their state. They say they would rather spend their time and political capital fighting for things like expanded health insurance coverage--issues they feel offer them a better chance of winning and thus producing real improvements in people's lives. Stick with gun control, and they lose the ability to win on other issues; let the gun-control language go dormant, and, they believe, few people will bolt the party because of it--after all, where else could they park themselves politically?--but some who had previously bolted might be lured back into the fold.
"When the handwriting is on the wall," explains Albuquerque State Representative and gun-control supporter Gail Beam, "there's nothing to be done. I do see it as a do-or-die issue, and yet my position was dead. I was really outnumbered. It wasn't close." Her colleague State Senator Dede Feldman goes further. "We've had the debate, and lost." Now, Feldman says resignedly, it's time "to concentrate on issues where you can get traction and mileage--such as healthcare in New Mexico, where you have a huge number without insurance. Don't play defense. Play offense with new ideas and issues, on healthcare, on economic development from the bottom up."
It's hard not to sympathize with their position. After all, what's the point in staking the moral and intellectual high ground on gun control, as I believe gun-control proponents have done, if in doing so you lose the larger war for political power and the ability to enact all the other aspects of your program?
Perhaps that trade-off would be worth it if gun-control laws would drastically limit the availability of deadly weapons; but with hundreds of millions of guns already in circulation in the United States, in practice, absent the forced disarmament of tens of millions of people, gun-control legislation may be more a gesture of political disgust at the gun industry than a transformative societal intervention. A few years ago the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) estimated there were 215 million guns in circulation; the National Academy of Sciences put the number at 258 million. Last year the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that from 2000 to 2003, there were more than 30 million "approved transfers" of guns (new and used). Close to forty states now have right-to-carry laws requiring handgun permits to be issued to all qualified applicants. Stop all gun sales tomorrow, and you'd still have a population better supplied with guns than many armies. Require the most thorough background checks possible, and, while you may lower the number of people shot dead by other people wielding legally purchased weapons, you'd still have to deal with a black market so flush with guns that it would be almost impossible to fully rein in.
In fact, when the numbers are examined, it could be argued that even the assault-weapons ban--the crown jewel of gun-control legislation--was largely symbolic. An unpublished National Institute of Justice report found that when the ban went into effect, in 1994, there were already about 1.5 million such weapons in private hands, but they were used in some 2 percent of gun-related crimes, according to a 2004 Washington Times article. The ban alone wouldn't remove the already huge number of such weapons from the streets. The Brady Campaign, in seeking to assuage the fears of opponents, notes in its literature that existing weapons can be kept, unregistered, under a grandfather provision; and, according to such data, it would not prevent the vast majority of shootings (although it might force gangs, whose shooters have increasingly favored automatic weapons, to utilize black-market purchasing more than they currently have to). The recent tragic shooting spree in a Minnesota High School, for example, would not have been prevented by the assault-weapons ban; in fact, according to news reports, the killer, 16-year-old Jeff Weise, used his police officer grandfather's service weapon--a gun that no realistic gun-control legislation would have taken off the streets.
That is not to say that individual gun-control laws, despite their on-the-ground limitations, have not had some measurable, and positive, impact: The Brady Bill's mandating of background checks has likely prevented a number of people from legally buying guns that might have then been used against, say, women who have fled their abusive husbands. And regarding the assault-weapons ban, any reduction in the availability and usage of these deadly carnage-machines is clearly an extremely good thing. Yet Democrats in the Richardson mold increasingly are wondering whether being perceived as the party of gun control exacts an electoral price that is simply too high.