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What Those Who Want Gun Control Can Learn From South Carolina

Like gay marriage, the removal of the Confederate flag represented rapid social change.

July 9, 2015

Dawn came early to South Carolina on Thursday.

Shortly after midnight the lower house of the state legislature voted 94-to-20 to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds. The emotional turning point in the 13-hour debate came when Republican Jenny Horne, a descendent of Jefferson Davis, declared as she fought back tears, “I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday.”

With the state senate having already overwhelmingly voted for removal and Governor Nikki Haley signing the legislation to pack it off to a museum, the flag will be lowered for the last time on Friday.

Every orthodoxy about the pace of social change in America has crumbled over the last few weeks. While backing for gay marriage had already hit 60 percent in many national polls before the Obergefell decision, the unified support of the South Carolina political establishment for repudiating the Confederate flag was stunning. As recently as 2012, Mitt Romney stood virtually alone among prominent Republicans in calling for an end to public display of the flag.

The catalyst, of course, for this re-examination of the Civil War and its symbols was the murder of nine people during Bible study in Charleston’s oldest black church. Only a few years ago, such wrenching deaths would have prompted earnest appeals for a renewed debate over America’s porous gun laws. Now after the legislative failure following Sandy Hook, no one from Barack Obama on down has any inclination to embark on another quixotic crusade against gun violence.

On the surface it seems puzzling that American attitudes are becoming decidedly more liberal on a variety of fronts (including the legalization of marijuana), but support for gun measures has eroded over the past decade. According to the Gallup Poll, 60 percent of Americans in 2004 believed that gun laws should be made “more strict.” In October 2014, the “more strict” camp had dropped to 47 percent. Other national surveys show a similar downward trajectory.

So why can the Confederate flag come down, but gun control is stuck in reverse?

It is simplistic to attribute this entirely to the political clout of the National Rifle Association. With the rise of Super PACs, the NRA’s campaign contributions—while still influential—are rarely decisive. Yes, the NRA intimidates legislators with its unrelenting stance and lobbying muscle. But not too long ago, foes of gay marriage (remember the Defense of Marriage Act) and good old boys with the Confederate flag on their pickup trucks also scared many in politics.

So what is it about guns that makes the issue impervious to social change? Why can positions change overnight on the Confederate flag and in a few years on gay marriage, but not over decades about regulating firearms?

The Confederate Flag Is Linked to Racism

Not until the segregationist resistance in 1962 was the Confederate battle flag placed atop the South Carolina statehouse. (It was moved to its current position on the statehouse grounds as part of a compromise in 2000). Throw in the obvious historical connection to slavery—and it grew increasingly difficult for anyone to argue that the flag only commemorates the bravery of the Confederate soldiers.

In contrast, gun violence kills blacks and whites, gays and straights, with a sad lack of distinction. Moreover, NRA supporters believe (however hyperbolically) that any regulation means that something tangible will be taken from them (their guns). Devotees of the Confederate flag know that they are merely losing a symbol. And foes of gay marriage are sacrificing nothing other than being confronted with the happiness of others.

The Business Community Repudiated the Flag

In 2015, anything that even hints at intolerance has become bad for business. By coming out promptly for the removal of the flag, South Carolina’s governor understood that any effort to retain it would prompt threats of business boycotts and a loss of tourist dollars. As soon as Haley made her announcement, Boeing and Michelin (two companies with major South Carolina plants) issued statements hailing the governor’s move.

In the days that followed, companies like Walmart announced that they would no longer sell merchandise emblazoned with Confederate flags. Praiseworthy, but made-in-China caps and decals were not a major profit center. While Walmart does not sell handguns, hunting rifles and supplies are a significant part of its sporting goods business. As CEO Douglas McMillon told CNN, “Our focus as it relates to firearms should be hunters…We believe in serving those customers, we have for a long time, and we believe we should continue to.”

The Flag Issue Comes with a Permanent Solution

With Thursday morning’s vote, the symbolic battle over the Confederate flag is over in South Carolina and in much of the South. In late June, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley—who had the power to act unilaterally—ordered that four Confederate flags be removed from a Civil War memorial at the state capitol.

In contrast, there is no way that any piece of legislation could prevent most gun deaths in America. With an estimated 300 million guns in circulation and the constraints imposed by the Second Amendment, there are limits on how much passage of background check legislation or reinstituting the assault weapons ban could accomplish.

Make no mistake: The drive for gun-control legislation is laudable. But one of the why-bother obstacles the cause faces is that success in Congress would only mean a partial victory.

Guns Are Connected to Fear of Crime

Last October, Gallup asked a national sample a different type of firearms question: “Do you think having a gun in the house makes it a safer place?” Most studies suggest that the answer is “no.” But what matters in the gun debate are perceptions and personal psychology. Gallup found that 63 percent of Americans believe that safety is found by having a lethal firearm close at hand.

What is puzzling is why there has been a dramatic change in the response to this question over the past decade. In 2004, only 42 percent of those surveyed said that owning a gun made them feel safer. What these poll numbers suggest is that Americans have grown more fearful at a time when the violent crime rate has been in sharp decline.

Part of the explanation may be the potency of pro-gun advocacy by the NRA and similar groups. In 2004, 54 percent of Republicans equated guns with safety. But in 2014—after several high-decibel fights over gun control—that number jumped to 81 percent. Partisanship, though, explains only part of the shift, since 41 percent of Democrats also think that having a gun at home fosters safety.

Gun control advocates have tried to rebrand the cause as gun safety. But that seems like a ham-handed public relations move when most Americans equate gun safety with having a handgun in a night table drawer.

Many Americans Misunderstand the Second Amendment

There is a common misconception—partly fostered by the NRA and its allies—that the Second Amendment bars all legislation regulating gun ownership. The Associated Press has been repeatedly asking a question since 2009: “Do you think that laws limiting gun ownership infringe on the public’s right to bear arms under the Second Amendment?”

The answers have been consistent—about half of all Americans believe that the Second Amendment is absolute. In similar fashion, an April 2013 Fox News Poll found that 53 percent of voters feel that “protecting the constitutional right of citizens to own guns” is more important than lessening “gun violence.”

The Second Amendment makes the quest for gun legislation different than almost every other cause. Not only do gun-control advocates have to advocate only limited remedies like background checks, but they must also battle against the armchair constitutional theories of Second Amendment absolutists.

The Elitism Problem

A major reason why the Confederate flag is coming down in South Carolina is because the state’s political leadership took control of the issue before out-of-state pressure turned it into an us-versus-them fight.

But since the law-and-order 1970s, the gun issue has become a proxy in a much larger culture war between urban liberals and those conservatives who see their way of life threatened by change. Barack Obama reflected this divide when he was recorded at off-the-record fund-raiser in 2008 saying about residents of dying industrial towns, “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion…as a way to explain their frustrations.”

This level of candor was impolitic in 2008 and would be equally toxic today. But it reflects an attitude (which I personally share) of total incomprehension over the passionate attachment of many Americans to their guns. This chasm of perception cannot be bridged by liberal politicians proposing gun measures by saying, “There is no greater supporter of the Second Amendment than I am, but…”

It is anguishing to witness the carnage from gun violence but to be powerless to do anything to limit it. But amid this frustration, proponents of gun control need to rethink the arguments and the emotion that have surrounded this cause in recent decades. For cultural reasons (and not just because of the power and megaphone of the NRA) the message is simply not getting through.

One tiny sprout of hope remains: Social change can happen with blinding speed in 21st century America. Remember that as the Confederate battle flag comes down on Friday in the state that launched the attack on Fort Sumter. 

(Photo: AP)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.