After the horrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary last week, the long dormant gun control debate has suddenly re-erupted. Many liberals, who had ignored the issue for years, are suddenly emboldened by the public outcry over both the murders and the ease with which the high-powered weapons were acquired. Barack Obama has created a task force to address the issue, helmed by a staunch advocate of gun control in Vice President Joe Biden, and public opinion has sharply swung towards new gun legislation. As many have speculated, this tragedy seems to be a turning point in America’s irresponsible and dangerous relationship with guns.
Don’t believe it.
In taking on the guns issue again, liberals are challenging what is probably the best organized pressure group in the history of the United States and possibly the history of representative democracy. The National Rifle Association and allied groups control millions of members, many of whom are dedicated, single issue voters. They control completely one of the nation’s two major political parties and many important members of the other (Sen. Majority leader Harry Reid, for instance, has been a consistent supporter of the NRA and gun ownership).
To liberals and gun control advocates who are now offering to take this juggernaut on, I say: You’re welcome to start anytime. So far, you’ve done nothing.
Chart taken from The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2012/12/18/the-nras-big-spending-edge-in-1-chart/?tid=pm_politics_pop
Gun control advocates bring, well, a knife to a gunfight. They are underfunded (the largest gun control advocacy group has literally 1% of the budget of the NRA), unorganized and lack even basic political infrastructure. There are no great mailing lists of gun control supporters that Congressional candidates can raise money from. There are no well-funded gun control think tanks pumping out policy papers. No wavering Democrats have been primaried by gun control advocates, and no Republicans have been made to pay a political price for their unquestioning fealty to the NRA.
Gun control advocates can’t even figure out what legislation they want to try and pass (hence the necessity of the Presidential task force). Some are proposing stricter background checks, which are a good idea but would’ve done nothing to prevent Sandy Hook, because the guns used were stolen. Some are promoting a re-passage of the Assault Weapons ban, despite the fact only 2% of gun crimes involve these types of weapons. Not only do gun control proponents currently lack the influence or ability needed to pass gun control legislation, they’re so marginal that they lack the intellectual infrastructure to figure out what effective legislation would actually be.
It’s true that public opinion supports stricter gun control, but it has before. Public opinion, in a representative Democracy, is only as good as its ability to influence elections and gun control advocates currently have almost none. And as our fast-moving and fickle media culture forgets about Sandy Hook and its victims, the issue will fade from the minds of most Americans, especially without a pressure group on the left that can match the muscle of the NRA and its allies.
Oh, and did I mention that even if Congress were able to pass strict gun control legislation, the current Supreme Court is especially and historically hostile to gun control and would be likely to strike down any far reaching legislation on Second Amendment grounds?
This is a twenty year project. It might take a lifetime. It requires hard work, organizing and fundraising, not the angry Facebook posts and “we must do something” op-eds we’re getting now. It would require liberals to promote gun control to one of their top policy priorities. It would require them to primary pro-gun Democrats, even in cases, such as in West Virginia or Montana’s Senate elections in 2012, an anti-gun Democrat would likely find winning impossible. It would require hundreds of millions of dollars in fundraising per year dedicated to the issue
This is not impossible. But I’d argue that it’s stupid, and liberals and progressives need to understand that this is an extremely heavy lift for a relatively small reward.
The Sandy Hook massacre is a dramatic and shocking crime. Thankfully, in the context of the entire country, these sort of spree shootings are relatively rare compared to other causes of preventable deaths. According to Wikipedia’s depressing compilation of US school shootings, 339 Americans have died in schools as a result of gun violence since 1992, (this includes incidents in which a student committed suicide with a gun without harming anyone else). Part of the reason gun control advocates have trouble on this debate is because the sort of dramatic mass shootings that inspire action on these issues are a tiny percentage of, and unconnected to, the vast majority of gun murders in the United States, far more of which are young men engaged in the drug trade shooting other young men engaged in the drug trade.
Just for some context on that 339 number: in the last twenty years, as many Americans died in school shootings as will die in car accidents in the next four days. And while the United States is indeed a grim outlier in gun deaths worldwide the same is true of car accidents, with Americans being 3 times as likely to die in them than citizens of Germany, the UK or Japan. If the United States could lower its rate of auto fatalities to that of the UK, we would save around 22,000 lives per year.
Traffic safety, as an issue, doesn’t have the same emotional punch that gun control has, but this is just to take one example. I could list a dozen causes, from increased access to health care, reducing obesity, helping people quit smoking, or reducing air pollution that would have an impact dozens and dozens times larger than gun control, and conveniently doesn’t involve taking on the world’s most powerful lobbying group head-on. On many of these issues, advocates already have impressive and well-funded organizations and legions of supporters, with concrete, effective legislative solutions just waiting to be passed.
But instead, it seems as if one dramatic crime has convinced rank-and-file liberals that they should be devoting more time to the one issue where they will have the toughest challenge and that will yield some of the weakest results. Already, knowing that legislative action on the gun issue is unlikely, and that the NRA is far more likely to punish them electorally than gun control supporters, many of the moderates who had seemingly come out in favor of increased gun control in the wake of Sandy Hook, like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), have turned their attention to scapegoating the much easier target of video games and Hollywood.
None of this is to say the NRA isn’t run by despicable lunatics, or that the United States’ gun laws are anything but absurd. But liberals and progressives need to think very carefully about whether to pick this particularly steep hill to die on, when there are other challenges that are both easier and more important.