The politics of guns are changing.
Another mass shooting. Another round of “thoughts and prayers.” Another outpouring of facts and figures about how gun violence is out of control in the United States. Another round of recriminations about how Washington is under the thumb of the powerful gun lobby and won’t do anything to enact “commonsense” gun regulation. And finally, another round of wondering: If not this tragedy, then what will it take?
But while it all feels frustratingly familiar, the politics of gun reform are changing.
- The sources of the National Rifle Association’s power are weakening, and genuine organizational muscle on behalf of gun reform is emerging.
- The hinge points in our national politics are shifting in ways that are could work for, rather than against, gun reform. The key “swing” areas are now more and more upscale communities, where the shooting in Parkland, Florida, is most likely to resonate.
- The high school students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have emerged as uniquely powerful voices for gun control.
Sandy Hook and its political aftermath
The mass shooting shock-anger-frustration routine feels depressingly familiar. We’ve been rehearsing it repeatedly since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December 2012, more than five years ago. Then, with Obama in the White House and Democrats in control of the Senate (but not the House), there was a sense that something might finally change. A background check bill emerged from the Senate. Its sponsors were Joe Manchin, a red-state Democrat just reelected from a gun-heavy state (West Virginia), and Pat Toomey, a Republican from a purple state (Pennsylvania).
The bill won a majority of votes in the Senate (54), but not a filibuster-proof majority, and so it died.
Four Democrats voted against the bill. Max Baucus from Montana, who retired shortly after; Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota, who is up for reelection; Mark Pryor of Arkansas; and Mark Begich of Alaska. Pryor and Begich were both up for reelection in 2014, and they hoped to maintain support of gun owners in their gun-heavy, Republican-leaning states.
In Arkansas, the NRA supported Pryor’s opponent Tom Cotton. So much for sticking with the NRA. In Alaska, the NRA withheld support in the Senate race. Begich still lost. So much for sticking with the NRA.
And Toomey, who introduced the background checks bill, got a “C” rating from the NRA. But he won reelection in 2016 anyway, in a swing state. He proved you can go against the NRA as a Republican and still win reelection, as a Republican. So much for sticking with the NRA.
In the short term, then, Sandy Hook was a devastating loss for gun reform. And since then, gun control legislation has been limited to the states. And the only gun-related legislation to pass in Washington made it easier for people with mental illness to purchase guns. But the electoral repercussions also showed the limits of the NRA’s power. Note that Toomey is now reintroducing his bill for background checks.
The rise (and fall?) of the NRA’s power
The reason the NRA has long been one of the most feared organizations in Washington is because of the way it organized and mobilized a set of single-issue voters. Gun rights devotees called their members and communicated their demands. It was effective — especially since there was almost no organizational might on the other side.
And so for a long time, the lore in Washington was this: Nobody ever lost reelection for being too supportive of gun rights. So why take the chance? If there were a sizable number of gun owners in your state or district, why pick a fight you were sure to lose? Especially since it seemed likely everybody in Congress was making the same risk-averse calculation, and as a result, no gun control legislation seemed likely to pass anyway. Why be courageous for a lost cause?
Baked into this calculus was the assumption that not only were there single-issue gun rights voters but Democrats could win these voters by being pro-gun, and Republicans could lose these voters by being anti-gun.
But as partisanship has taken over just about everything in political life, the power of the single-issue voter (on any issue) has diminished. Spend some time reading and soaking in the NRA’s powerful propaganda, and it’s harder and harder to distinguish its own advocacy from core Republican identity politics of nostalgic American greatness. The NRA is now part of the Republican Party. Ninety-nine percent of its money goes to Republican candidates. As a result, it has lost the leverage it once had over swing-state Democrats.
In the short term, this made the NRA stronger, because its gamble paid off. Republican control of the House, Senate, and presidency makes meaningful gun control legislation unlikely. In the long run, however, this makes the NRA weaker, because its power is tied to Republicans being in power.
Can gun reform be the new wedge issue in politics?
Parkland is a very wealthy suburb in a crucial swing state. This is significant.
Upscale suburban Sunbelt areas now hold the balance of power in Congress. These are places like Parkland where voters, especially moms, are likely to care far more about school safety than gun rights. In the past, it was conservative Democrats in rural areas who found themselves vulnerable on gun politics, making gun reform more difficult. Now it may be Republicans in upscale suburban areas who find themselves vulnerable on gun politics, to precisely the opposite effects. The political calculus around gun policy is changing.
And because Florida is a swing state, the resonance of this tragedy has space to take on a larger political meaning. Sandy Hook certainly resonated. But it was in Connecticut, which by 2012 was one of the most reliably Democratic states in reliably Democratic New England. It did not resonate in a way that could determine the balance of power in Washington.
But while the opportunity is there, much depends on the ability of political organizations to catalyze on it. And here, the biggest challenge still remains.
The strength of the NRA may ultimately be its weakness
The National Rifle Association did not spring up overnight. It built itself up over many decades, developing a sense of shared identity that made being a gun owner more than just a mere consumerist hobby. It connected being a gun owner to a deeper sense of identity and self-worth. Any gun control proposal was not just public policy — it was an affront to your lifestyle and values, to your status in society.
This was a great strategy for mobilizing and sustaining a dedicated core of passionate civic members. But as a mode of organization building, it requires a constant ratcheting up of threat. Its logic demands no compromise because it thrives on constant threat. And its mode of thinking has, not surprisingly, spawned even more hardcore, no-compromise groups, with which the NRA now has to compete for dues-paying members and support.
For those who are bought in, this threat-based, identity-oriented propaganda is effective and powerful. But for those who are not bought in, there is an increasing bizarre quality to the now-familiar response that only more guns can prevent more gun violence, or that any attempt to limit gun violence is futile and will somehow backfire.
We are now at a point where both expert guidance and public opinion overwhelmingly support a large menu of policy solutions. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, 66 percent of Americans supported stricter gun laws, the highest the polling company has ever recorded. And 97 percent of Americans (and 97 percent of gun owners) support universal background checks — a unicorn-rare level of national consensus.
Can gun reform groups organize?
The NRA always had the built-in advantage of organizing around a shared activity. People go shooting and hunting together. They join clubs and participate in NRA-sponsored training together. People don’t not go shooting and not go hunting together in quite the same way.
And yet there are ways to overcome this. Political movements against drinking (Prohibition) and drunk driving (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) were successful because they tapped into deeper concerns about public morality and public safety. MADD also tapped an identity (mothers). This seems to be the strategy behind Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which is smart. The more gun control takes on the quality of an identity-based moral cause, the more gun control groups will thrive and grow. Moms Demand Action gained 50,000 new members following the Parkland shooting.
But even more compelling and potentially game-changing are the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. To watch Emma Gonzalez speak is to watch somebody who has the poise and energy to be the voice of a generation. If you haven’t watched her speech yet, stop reading this article and watch it now. It is vintage Obama-fired-up-ready-to-go level inspirational.
The kids of Parkland come from affluent families with resources, which make them well equipped to make an impact. They are registering to vote, entering politics now. They are looking for a cause. Gun reform could be the cause of a generation.
In channeling this energy, movement leaders need to be careful that gun control does not become a partisan Democratic cause. They need to find a way for upscale suburban Republicans and some gun owners to also identify with the moralizing cause of gun reform, despite their party identification. This won’t be easy to do, given how tribal our politics has become. But adding another partisan-reinforcing moralizing crusade to our politics will only make our politics more tribal.
If I had resources to advocate the cause of gun reform, here’s what I would do: I’d invest in people. I’d find passionate advocates of gun reform, like Emma Gonzalez, and send them out to speak in upscale suburban communities in swing districts and swing states, talking about how they came to care about gun reform and why this issue matters so much. I’d work with schools to turn school leaders into advocates. And I’d give all political candidates ratings, just like the NRA does.
Where the Democratic candidate was better than the Republican, I’d try hard to make gun policy a key issue in the election. Where the Republican candidate was willing to be supportive, I’d say nice things about the Republican candidate.
And most importantly, I’d keep at it for the long term. The challenge for gun reform advocacy has always been that it spikes in the wake of a shooting, then fades as the news cycle moves on to something else.
This is not an easy path to hew. And American legislative institutions, especially the Senate, still overrepresent rural areas where gun culture is the strongest. Still, even majorities of gun owners now support stricter gun laws. Change is more possible than it has been in decades.
How to change the balance of power
One of the reasons the NRA and affiliated groups have been powerful for so long is that politicians have been afraid to challenge their power. That’s because the NRA has done a great job of mobilizing voters around a single issue and has, in many ways, operated as a textbook civics organization. But as it’s become more and more just a part of the Republican Party, and has drifted into more and more extreme positions, it’s become weaker.
The NRA and its affiliated network of groups can be beaten. They can be beaten if equally passionate advocates join together for gun control, tap into moral passion and identity, and use their organizational force to turn gun control into a wedge issue capable of determining the political fate of upscale suburban districts that now hold the balance of political power for the nation. More and more, it looks like Parkland is the catalytic tragedy to make this happen.