Could recent tragedies mark a shift in the nation’s gun control debate?
I’ve been a gun control pessimist for about as long as I’ve been writing about the issue of guns. No matter what happens—no matter how many mass shootings there are, no matter how many abusive men kill their wives and girlfriends, no matter how many terrorists figure out how easy it is to kill huge numbers of people with our readily available firearms, no matter how many children accidentally shoot their siblings and friends—the marriage between the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party will prevent any meaningful national legislation from being passed. That even applies to measures like universal background checks, which somehow can’t be enacted despite support from 90 percent of the public. You couldn’t get 90 percent of the public to agree that ice cream is tasty, and yet we can’t even get a vote on that in the House.
But it may be that we’re seeing the first signs of a change in our debate, and eventually maybe our laws, on guns. There isn’t going to be an overnight transformation, but there are reasons to think that we’ll look back on this year as the beginning of a profound change.
While mass shootings and an overall death toll from guns exceeding 30,000 are a constant in American life, 2016 has been different in some important ways, with a series of events, happening one after the other, that could alter the place of guns, and the NRA in particular, in our politics.
Last week’s high-profile tragediesfirst, the videotaped deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and then the murder of five police officers during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas —have led to the rehashing of some familiar arguments. But they’re distinctive in important ways. Both Sterling and Castile were shot specifically because they were carrying guns—not because they brandished them or pointed them at the officers who killed them, but just because they had them. The Castile case in particular was troubling to many gun owners, since he had a permit to carry a concealed weapon and informed the officer that he was licensed to carry it and had it with him.
But interestingly enough, the NRA, that great champion of concealed carry, didn’t express outrage over his killing. I can’t say whether that’s because he was black and they see their mission as protecting the gun rights of white people. But they issued a brief statement that said almost nothing (“The reports from Minnesota are troubling and must be thoroughly investigated”), to the disgust of many of their own members, who couldn’t help but see race playing a role in the group’s reaction.
That will only feed the impression among gun owners that perhaps the NRA doesn’t actually represent them and their beliefs. It also exposes a deep irony in the NRA’s position. On the one hand, its supporters are mostly conservatives who believe in law and order, the kind of folks who value social and familial hierarchy and respect for authority. On the other hand, the group preaches contempt for government—and police are the spear point of government authority—and encourages people to believe that the implosion of civilization is around the corner, or may have already begun.
For years, the NRA has told its members that not only is societal collapse imminent, but that we’re already living in a hellscape of chaos and death. “Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals. These are perils we are sure to face—not just maybe. It’s not paranoia to buy a gun. It’s survival,” NRA chief Wayne Lapierre wrote not long ago in an op-ed, in a litany familiar to anyone who has heard him give a speech.
The organization also seemed unsure how to react to Dallas killings, which were made possible by the killer’s ability to aim a military-style rifle at police, the same kind of rifle wielded in the horrific shooting in Orlando last month (and yes, it was only a month ago). That event differed from previous mass shootings not just in the magnitude of the carnage, but in the way it touched on a fear that conservatives have worked so hard to foment. The idea of terrorists using not bombs or planes but the very machines of war that gun advocates fetishize makes for a discomfiting cognitive dissonance: We love guns, but we don’t think potential terrorists should have any rights … so what about terrorists wielding our beloved AR-15? It’s an awfully hard quandary to resolve.
Meanwhile in Congress, Democrats had plainly had enough: In the House, they staged a sit-in to demand votes on two sets of measures, one on universal background checks and the other on keeping those on terrorist watch lists from buying guns. Despite the fact that there are serious civil liberties questions about the latter, arising from the inaccuracy and wide scope of the federal government’s various watch lists, that idea also gets support from around 85 percent of Americans. While there have been no votes yet, Speaker of the House Paul Ryantried to insert a toothless version of a watch-list ban into a Homeland Security bill. He backed off after opposition from conservatives, but just the fact that he thought it was worth making a show of passing a bill to restrict gun sales in any form tells you that change is afoot.
Then there’s the presidential race. Hillary Clinton has been loudly advocating gun control measures throughout the campaign—a new assault weapons ban, universal background checks, revoking the immunity gun manufacturers enjoy from most lawsuits—without much apparent fear that the issue will damage her in November. That may be because she and her advisers understand that the American most likely to be a gun owner is an older white man from the South—in other words, just about the last person who’ll ever vote Democratic. The flip side of that fact is that the coalition Barack Obama relied on to get elected and re-elected, and the one Clinton is trying to reassemble, has at its core the voters least likely to own guns: young people, urban dwellers, African Americans, and Latinos.
Clinton also hasn’t hesitated to call out the NRA specifically, and given what a cautious politician she is, that’s also revealing. The newly invigorated gun control movement has taken as one of its core goals to drive a wedge between the NRA and gun owners generally, arguing that the group’s radical policy positions and nightmarish outlook don’t represent most gun owners, who aren’t stockpiling dozens of firearms in their underground bunkers as they look forward longingly to the coming apocalypse.
So 2016 may be the year we write a new story about the role of guns in a national election. The old story—one that was told about elections where Republicans succeeded, like 1994 and 2000—was that Democrats alienated and angered “heartland” Americans with their advocacy of gun control, and were punished mercilessly for it at the polls. This story wasn’t an accurate one (the outcome of those elections had virtually nothing to do with the gun issue), but it was repeated endlessly by people like Bill Clinton who claimed to have a deep understanding of that heartland. The consequence was that Democrats lived in constant fear of antagonizing the NRA, lest they behold its fearsome wrath.
But just imagine if both politicians and ordinary people came to realize that the NRA isn’t as powerful as so many thought, that only a lunatic would believe that, in a country with more than 300 million guns and levels of gun violence unmatched in the developed world, we could be safer if only we had even more guns, that there are sensible things we can do to try to limit that violence, and that a presidential candidate who said all this might be helped by it, not hurt by it, at the polls. Then you might actually see the first glimmers of change.