Another View: How military leaders can change the conversation on guns

When David Steinberg founded the nation’s first gun-control lobby — the long-forgotten National Committee for a Responsible Firearms Policy — he was spurred by more than the shooting of an unarmed teen in his northern Virginia neighborhood.

It seemed crazy to him that everyday Americans could buy lethal weapons, no questions asked, when he and his fellow World War II soldiers had been required to go through extensive firearms training first.

Steinberg, who died in 2011 at age 93, had his epiphany nearly 50 years ago. It has started resonating again in recent days as high-profile members of the military — notably Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Gen. Colin Powell and Iraq War veteran (and Delaware attorney general) Maj. Beau Biden — have waded into the national gun control debate.

McChrystal this month called for “serious action” on gun control, while Powell said he would support comprehensive background checks. Both questioned why any civilian would need a military-style assault rifle. Biden, whose father, Vice President Joe Biden, chaired the president’s gun policy task force, has prepared soon-to-be-introduced proposals to tighten firearms restrictions in Delaware.

To the ubiquitous question “What will happen on gun control?” the answer will depend, as it always has, on who gets involved, how intensely and for how long. Gun control coalitions are fragile and seldom win, but when they do, it’s in part because new groups have chosen to throw themselves into the fray.

Law enforcement groups were critical to passage of the Brady background check law in 1993, while mothers’ groups and moderate Republican lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, helped secure the passage of state laws expanding those background checks after a spate of school shootings in the late 1990s.

If the voices of the generals are any indication, veterans and active-duty servicemen and women may be an essential part of the new winning coalition.

When I was researching my book, “Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control,” I consulted a close friend, a ninth-generation Army officer who had led forces in Bosnia. She told me, “The military taught me how dangerous guns are. I can’t believe that civilians are allowed to own them without the screening and training that my soldiers and I received.”

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken a terrible toll. They have also bequeathed great gifts to this nation: Examples of courage, commitment and service beyond what should be expected of anyone, advances in trauma care that will benefit millions for years to come and — perhaps least expected — the public advocacy of professional warriors who must clear more hurdles to get a weapon than does a felon walking the aisles of a gun show.

Why do military voices matter? For one, they know their weapons. Gun rights activists have long complained that citizen activists don’t understand firearms technology and therefore have no place at the policy table. Whether you agree or not (I don’t), the same cannot be said of members of our armed forces.

Second, many military personnel and veterans are themselves gun owners. They are credible defenders of the Second Amendment, but they also know, first hand, the destructive power of guns. They see it in battle and, sadly, in the epidemic of suicides among active-duty personnel and veterans.

Gun control advocates have sought to demonstrate through polls that mainstream gun owners do not support the policy agenda of the Washington gun lobby and that members of Congress need not fear the wrath of Joe Sportsman. Members of the military, like police officers, may well constitute a key gun-owning constituency that speaks with moral authority and offers political cover to wavering lawmakers, especially conservatives.

Finally, and critically, the military is the most trusted institution in America, with 75 percent of respondents to a 2012 Gallup poll reporting they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence. Compare that to 13 percent for Congress.

Political scientist E.E. Schattschneider observed decades ago that politics change when the scope of conflict broadens and new players enter the fray. As the president’s gun-control proposals move through Congress, we should heed the perspective that our military leaders and veterans groups bring to the table regarding background checks, assault rifles and other proposals regulating firearms.

Kristin A. Goss is an Associate Professor of Public Policy and Political Science and the Director of the Duke in DC Program. She is a Faculty Affiliate in the Center for Strategic Philanthropy and in the Hart Leadership Program. This commentary was originally published in The Des Moines Register and was also published in The News & Observer