This time will be different, we said after Sandy Hook. Then after Las Vegas. Then after Parkland. Yet, it never was different. No matter how horrific and traumatic, public mass shootings have not compelled Congress to pass new gun control laws.
The outrage cycle following mass shootings has become numbingly predictable. Republicans offer thoughts and prayers. Democrats scoff at empty calls for thoughts and prayers. Gun control advocates say this can’t go on. Gun rights believers insist new laws won’t work. Congress remains paralyzed. Cable TV gets bored, as do we. Our attention goes with the next hot news story.
Then we wait for the next mass shooting, and begin the process all over again.
We have just suffered two public mass shootings over the span of a week, after a yearlong, pandemic-driven respite. The Mass Shooting Tracker shows an increase in attacks from 2019 to 2020: 503 to 696. But the vast majority of these incidents did not happen in public places, did not receive national news coverage, and did not cause collective trauma. The Mother Jones database of public mass shootings in those two years dropped from 10 to 2, with no public mass shootings in 2020 after March 16th.
Now that we’ve been jarred into worrying about guns again, after a year of worrying about coronavirus, might this time be different? Finally?
Some things are different.
The Democrats: We have a Democratic president who ran foursquare on support for gun control, and who has a record of passing gun control bills. We have a Democratic Party that controls the House and Senate, with nearly every Democratic member supportive of new gun control measures.
Barack Obama was not that president, and his Democratic Party was not that party. After the backlash to Bill Clinton’s Brady Bill and assault weapons ban, and the electoral defeats they suffered in 2000, 2002 and 2004, Democrats concluded that gun control was dead weight in many swing areas. They won control of Congress in 2006 with the help of several gun-friendly candidates including a then much more 2ndAmendment-ish Kirsten Gillibrand, and Obama was circumspect on guns en route to his 2008 presidential victory.
A slew of public mass shootings in Obama’s first term—including one that inflicted Democratic congresswoman Gabby Giffords with brain damage—did not change party strategy. Only Sandy Hook did that, one month after Obama’s re-election in 2012. Lacking a clear electoral mandate, Obama’s push for gun control ended in failure, with four red state Democratic senators joining most Republicans to filibuster the background check bill sponsored by the bipartisan duo of Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey.
Since then, the cultural polarization of the electorate has accelerated, with non-college voters increasingly Republican and college graduates increasingly Democratic. Among whites, those with a diploma are less likely to own a gun than those without. And whites in general are more likely to own a gun than people of color. Today’s Democratic Party, powered by people of color and white college graduates, and with diminishing white rural representation, is far more committed to gun control than at any point since 1994.
The National Rifle Association:Long the bête noir of the gun control movement, the NRA is now grappling with a New York State lawsuit charging fraud and seeking its dissolution. The group has filed for bankruptcy and fled to Texas, hoping to stave off the New York suit. But the bankruptcy claim may get thrown out, and even if it isn’t, ABC News reports that the bankruptcy judge could “appoint a trustee to investigate allegations of fraud — or even assume control of the organization.”
Democrats are in charge. The NRA is on the ropes. The political stars would seem aligned.
But here’s what’s not different
The aforementioned polarization: Gun rights voters are just as fervent as they have always been. Considering how much the current crop of Republican congresspeople has been play culture war games this year, there is no reason to believe that the NRA’s troubles will make Republican politician any less bonded to voters who view guns as a culture war symbol.
Our attention span: We may be talking about gun control today. But give it a week or so.
The chronic problem afflicting Democrats is that they always shift into gear after a public mass shooting but shift out of gear between mass shootings. Gun control organizations such as Sandy Hook Promise admirably toil to keep up pressure for action. But because gun control strategies are heavily centered on banning assault weapons—a far easier political target than the more commonly owned handgun—everyone struggles to maintain focus once the emotional response to mass shooting fades and the TV cameras move on to the next story.
Meanwhile, when the cameras aren’t around, thousands die from easily accessible guns. In 2019, 482 people died in mass shootings, 73 people in public mass shootings. But the average annual total of gun-related deaths in America is 38,826, including 23,437 suicides. On a daily basis, we could spotlight gun deaths from suicides, domestic violence, ordinary crime and home accidents to show why we urgently need to curtail access to guns. But we don’t.
The filibuster: Despite all the chatter about abolishing it or reform it, the filibuster is still here. Even if Democrats imposed a “talking filibuster” requirement, Republicans can still talk and talk and talk to stop a gun control measure of any sort. Folks like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Josh Hawley would like nothing more.
Manchin: He’s still here, too. As one of the few rural state Democrats left in the Senate, even if he was to junk or scale back the filibuster, he has limited latitude when it comes to guns.
This is a person who initially won his Senate seat with an ad in which he touted his NRA endorsement and shot a bullet through Obama’s climate bill. His 2013 attempt to pass a bill expanding background checks—however narrow the bill, however doomed the effort—was, arguably, the biggest act of bravery of his political career. (He lost the NRA’s endorsement in 2018.) Manchin would still support something along the lines of Manchin-Toomey, which expanded background checks to cover Internet sales and gun show transactions. But he said two background check bills that just passed the House go too far for him. “Commercial transactions should be background checked. Commercial — you don’t know a person,” said Manchin, but, “if I know a person, no.”
Allowing family and friends to sell guns without a background check creates a loophole that doesn’t sit well with many gun control advocates. But with Manchin in the center of the Senate, that’s probably going to be upper bound of what can pass in the near-term. And with the filibuster, accomplishing even that will be a steep challenge.
One other element is different today than eight years ago: Biden doesn’t have any other low-hanging legislative fruit commanding his attention.
As I noted last week, in the wake of the gruesome Sandy Hook massacre, Obama sacrificed momentum on immigration reform to pursue gun control and ended up with neither. Back then, in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s poor performance with Latino voters, even Sean Hannity was promoting a pathway to citizenship, creating a brief window of bipartisan opportunity.
Today, there’s nothing on Biden’s wish list that conservative talkers are promoting in similar fashion. While some Senate Republicans are engaging in nascent cross-party talks on infrastructure, immigration, and the minimum wage, negotiations aren’t nearly advanced enough to instill confidence of an imminent breakthrough. That may be because Democrats and Republicans appear equally peeved that neither side budged in the pandemic relief process. With partisan sentiments hardening, there’s no momentum on any other issue to sacrifice. So why not take a swing at gun control
Of course, any swing can whiff. The only Republicans still in the Senate who voted in 2013 to break the Manchin-Toomey filibuster are Susan Collins and Toomey. When CNN casted about to see if any other Republican was open to a background check bill, it found only one more. Sen. John Cornyn said, “I support background checks on all commercial gun sales.” That would seemingly put him on the same page as Manchin, even though in 2013 Cornyn helped filibuster Manchin-Toomey. Getting Cornyn, who was once the second ranking Republican in the Senate, on board might help generate some bona fide momentum.
I began the Biden presidency as a relative optimist on bipartisanship, but I’ve also been a longtime pessimist on gun control. Bipartisanship requires reduced polarization. If we’re going to have a surprise bipartisan breakthrough on a controversial issue, I doubt it’s going to be an issue among the most charged of the last three decades. Nor would I expect it on an issue where the stakeholders aren’t chamber of commerce types who can be swayed by tax cuts, deregulation, or legal protections. (Gun makers already have broad immunity from lawsuits.)
But while the odds of passing a bipartisan background check bill today may be low, the risk of trying is also low. And if this time is actually going to be different, unlike all those other times, Biden will have to try.