Bullet Vote

For what seems like the thousandth time, progressives are absorbed with figuring out why America’s gun laws are so toothless. Is it just the product of an atavistic culture? The power of the gun lobby? The grip of ideologues on the GOP? The gutlessness of the Democratic Party? Some “framing” problem? All of the above?

I do not entirely agree with the recent analysis of Steven Hill and Robert Richie in The Atlantic attributing most of the problem to the power of swing voters in gerrymandered districts, but at least they are advancing arguments that don’t rely too much on abnormal psychology or the belief that a different wording for policy positions can instantly move tens of millions of people.

[C]ontrol of the U.S. House of Representatives comes down to only about 35 districts — fewer than 10 percent of the 435 districts — every two years. That gives overwhelming power to undecided voters who live in these swing districts, many of which are rural and conservative-leaning. This set-up also gives enormous power to the NRA, because many NRA members live in these rural swing districts.

By their estimation, we have terrible gun laws because of a series of small factors that add up to a big conclusion: “bullet” voters (pun intended) opposing gun control or anything like it who happen to exercise disproportionate power in districts with disproportionate influence over the U.S. House.

That makes some sense, but (a) American gun politics have not necessarily tracked big fights over control of the House; and (b) the everything-depends-on-the-Blue-Dogs take on the House Democratic Caucus is about a decade out of date.

Sure, the superior voter-distribution efficiency of the GOP coalition, aggravated by Republican control of the last decennial redistricting cycle, means that it will take a sizable Democratic majority of the national House popular vote to flip control of that chamber. But aside from the fact that there’s a lot more to American politics than the partisan identity of the Speaker of the House, the steady decline of the Blue Dog Caucus means that Democrats are increasingly more likely to look somewhere other than the Deep South for marginal House seats to conquer. And if you look at the gun politics of the last couple of decades, what’s really changed is not the balance of power between the two parties, or even the power of the NRA in either party, but the increasingly unreasonable positioning of the gun lobby and a steady rightward drift in what is thought to divide “pro-” and “anti-” gun politicians. In particular, the belief that the Second Amendment is some sort of super-Amendment on which all other freedoms depend used to be the provenance of crazy people. Now it’s standard conservative rhetorical fare, even though it implies a Right of Revolution that conservative voters might be somewhat uncomfortable with if applied to anyone other than their own respectable selves. And it’s this sort of floodgates theory that is responsible for the adamant conservative opposition to even the more reasonable gun regulations, including those, like the assault weapons ban, that were recently in law with no tangible enslavement of hunters or anxious homeowners in high crime areas.

So for my money, you don’t need to deploy any particularly exotic hypotheses to explain a baleful trend on gun issues that has been apparent on many subjects where conservatives used to inhabit a similar mental neighborhood with the rest of us. Yes, it’s strange that conservatives think it makes more sense to militarize schools or radically restrict the rights of mental health patients than to maybe inhibit the possession of weapons whose sole purpose is to kill lots of people in a short period of time. But it’s no stranger on balance than the idea that tight money and cuts in government spending is the way out of a recession.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.