On Tuesday, the House introduced bipartisan legislation to ban bump stocks, the device that modifies semi-automatic firearms to allow them to fire at a pace that rivals automatic weapons, which was used by Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock. After years of Republican inaction following mass shooting after mass shooting, this bill has rare bipartisan support, though its passage is anything but inevitable after the National Rifle Association (NRA) announced its opposition on Friday, even after the massacre in Las Vegas resulted in 58 deaths and hundreds more injuries.
Banning bump stocks is an obvious move. But it’s not a substantive policy change. After the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, this is where we’re at with gun control; if the bill to ban the gun accessory actually does pass the House and moves to the Senate, it’s still emblematic of the astonishingly low bar set for legislative gun regulation.
While gun control advocates have been fighting policy battles, the gun rights groups like the NRA are fighting a war. Think about it: when you hear gun rights, you almost certainly think of the NRA. But when you hear gun control—at least for those not directly involved in the movement—no one organization or advocacy group comes to mind. Gun control groups like the Brady Campaign or Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown are inevitably at a strategic disadvantage. They are fighting battles for specific policy changes, while the NRA has leveraged gun rights into a pugilistic fight for cultural dominance, propped up by the twin pillars of “protection” and “freedom.” An NRA video from June narrated by spokeswoman Dana Loesch signals toward the organization’s broader aspirations, making thinly veiled calls for violence against liberal protesters, all without once mentioning guns. In another video, Loesch claims that the NRA is “coming for” the New York Times, also with no mention of guns. To say the least, the NRA is far removed from its halcyon roots as a genteel organization for hunters and marksmen.
The NRA has reaped the success of its strategic decision to position gun rights as a cultural wedge issue: 25 percent of gun rights supporters have contributed money to the NRA and other pro-Second Amendment organizations at some point, but only 6 percent of gun control advocates have contributed to pro-gun control groups, a Pew survey found. (In 2013, the NRA spent 62 times as much money on lobbying as did the leading gun control organization.) Nearly half of gun rights proponents have engaged in some form of political activism for the cause, versus just a quarter of gun control supporters.
In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, David Frum stated a bleak truth:
People who advocate for tougher gun laws—and I am one of them—need to face up to the fact that public opinion is with the NRA. When you ask questions like, do you believe that guns make you safer, you see that Americans do think so. And we have seen over the past two decades a rise in support for gun rights even as fewer and fewer Americans actually keep guns in their home.
To combat the NRA’s success, gun control advocates need to find a new way to mobilize their supporters. Nicole Hockley, the mother of a boy who was killed at Sandy Hook, said that the gun control movement must shift its focus from policy to other preventive methods. Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, insists that change is finally viable. “In the aftermath of Las Vegas, people are angry,” she said in an email. “Angry that the phrase ‘another mass shooting’ has become commonplace in our country. Angry that the NRA has bought off some members of Congress, with communities across the country paying the price. Ultimately, the power to pass gun violence prevention laws rests with Congress. If Congress won’t respond to the will of the people and change our gun laws, we will change Congress. And we’ll be backed by our millions of supporters and the thousands of Americans who have newly signed up to volunteer with their local Moms Demand Action chapters since the Las Vegas shooting.”
Gun control advocates haven’t found a unifying strategy to defeat the NRA—and that is what they desperately need. Until they find this, legislation that merely chips away at the gun violence epidemic—such as the bump stock ban that’s now inching through Congress—will be viewed as the major legislative victory for public safety that it clearly isn’t. The visceral anger and sadness after Newtown didn’t lead to any changes on the federal level, but if gun control groups can channel the emotions of advocates into sustained action as effectively as the NRA does for its conservative base, substantive change might not be as distant as it seems.