Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The new gun-control movement, post-Newtown

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I wasn't terribly disappointed when the Manchin-Toomey gun bill was defeated in the Senate (even though it got well more than 50 votes, because of a Republican filibuster), because it was a bad bill. But it did include an expanded background checks provision, along with various pro-gun provisions, and so in the end it was probably better than nothing.

And yet in defeat that bill did more for the gun-control movement that it would have done had it ever become law, and in that sense a lot of good may come from what at the time seemed like a serious, embarrassing, and revealing setback.

Actually, though, it started not on April 17, 2013, but on December 14, 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. There had been many other mass shootings previously in America, including recently at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, but Newtown was different. It was a brutal attack on a school, where parents leave their children and expect them to be safe, and the fact that so many children were killed in cold blood was simply too shocking, too powerful, too overwhelming, to ignore. (And there was a cultural/racial element to it as well. This wasn't inner-city Detroit. This was a part of America with which more Americans, including the political and media elites who shape public opinion, could identify. It's easy, sadly so, for many to ignore the plight of a city like Detroit. But if it could happen in Newtown, it could happen anywhere.)

This is not to say that the country was suddenly ready for significant gun control. That will take time. No, if not that, it was at least ready for something meaningful to be done to curb gun violence, to put a stop if at all possible to a mostly unregulated gun market that has resulted in guns, including weapons of mass destruction for which there is no reasonable justification for private ownership, falling into the wrong hands way too many times.

President Obama himself took the lead. In an incredibly moving vigil in Newtown a few days after the shooting, he said:

We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.

And this: 

Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, Allison, God has called them all home. 

For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory.

Yes, the country was finally ready, at least for expanded background checks, and perhaps for much more, and they overwhelmingly expressed that in poll after poll. 

And then, when Manchin-Toomey failed, despite a solid majority in the Senate and popular support in the 90s, enough was enough. It wasn't just that Washington was behaving like Washington, Congress behaving like Congress, the dysfunction laughable, the system embarrassing, it was that the country's leading representatives had directly failed the people who put them there.

It has often been that way, but this was too much even for a largely apathetic electorate. Washington, and specifically Republican senators most of whom are deeply in the pockets of the NRA and the rest of the gun lobby, had given the American people the finger.

And the American people pushed back.

As Alec MacGillis writes in a must-read piece at The New Republic

In the Senate, the backlash had an effect. Some Republicans who had opposed the bill, such as Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Jeff Flake of Arizona, signaled they might be open to changing their minds. Majority Leader Harry Reid, once a dependable NRA ally, spoke about taking the rare step of bringing the bill back for another vote. Senator Joe Manchin, the bill's Democratic co-sponsor, is still actively courting support from his colleagues. "It's not going away," he told me.

Why did these developments take so many elected officials and pundits by surprise? As New York Times columnist Tom Edsall has pointed out, political science research shows that politicians consistently overestimate the conservatism of their constituents. But in this case, there was something more debilitating at work. The political class often lets old assumptions blind it to shifting realities.And the absolute power of the NRA is one of the oldest and least-tested assumptions in Washington.

And so there's a sort of perfect storm emerging out of the horror of Newtown: A mass shooting took hold of the popular consciousness, building overwhelming support for reform (at least for background checks); leaders like President Obama and Vice President Biden realized that something meaningful had to be done; there has been greater awareness of the plague of gun violence as a result of social media; the mainstream news media are paying attention; and the gun-control movement has finally built up the strength, propelled by Newtown, to push back against the NRA and its influence in Washington, with the realization now that the NRA is an extremist group that opposes even the most reasonable, sensible gun-control efforts and concerns itself mostly with the profits of the gun industry.

As MacGillis writes:

[F]or some time now, the NRA's power has been more a matter of entrenched wisdom than actual fact. Gun ownership is declining -- from half of households in the 1970s to a third today. A slew of senators and governors have won campaigns in red or purple states despite NRA F ratings, including Tim Kaine (Virginia), Kay Hagan (North Carolina), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), and Bill Nelson (Florida), who has campaigned on gun control but has won majorities even in deeply conservative Panhandle counties. Senator Chris Murphy, a rookie Connecticut Democrat who has taken a lead on the issue since the Newtown massacre, points out that, of the 16 Senate races the NRA participated in last year, 13 of its candidates lost. "The NRA is just all mythology," he says. "The NRA does not win elections anymore."

And so reality is finally taking over from false perception.

And then came Newtown. We are so resigned to seeing mass shootings come and go without any attempt to fix gun laws, but after Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook, something really did change. At long last and against all expectations, a viable movement for gun regulation is emerging. It is a development that not only bodes ill for the gun lobby and its Republican patrons, but will also complicate matters for elements of the Democratic Party who have been content to accede to the status quo. The narrow defeat of the background-check bill, it turns out, was not the end of hopes for gun reform, but the beginning.

And hopefully the beginning of great success in future, though of course a great deal remains to be done and there can be no rest in the long, hard fight for gun control.

Maybe, just maybe, the era of the NRA is over. And maybe, just maybe, America will have the serious gun laws it so desperately needs.

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