No one was surprised that there was a mass shooting the other day in California. After all, this is the United States of America, the mass-shooting capital of the world. In response, a few members of Congress are hoping to revive the gun control debate. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said on “Face the Nation” that he wants to push some kind of updated version of the Manchin-Toomey bill that would expand background checks, among other things. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who co-sponsored the House version of Manchin-Toomey, told The Post, “This tragedy demonstrates once again the need to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill,” and repeated his support of background checks. “Even though this issue may not be popular in particular congressional districts, if we want to be a national party, we ought to be looking closely at it,” King said.
Even if he’s right, the GOP confronts the same dynamic it does on other issues, including immigration, where safe conservative districts make it all but impossible for the party to moderate its stance, even when doing so is in its broader long-term interest. A Republican member of Congress from the South, for instance, knows that even if background checks are popular nationally and the party as a whole suffers from its image of extremism on the issue, in his district there’s only one rational position to take. His electoral fortunes depend on his being as conservative as possible. Not that he would want to change even if the electoral conditions were different; the GOP in Congress is now made up almost entirely of people who find any limits on firearms personally repugnant, the occasional exception, such as King, notwithstanding. Repeat that a couple of hundred times in one district after another, and you have a party dead-set against any moderation on guns, no matter how many bodies pile up or what the polls say.
So, no, this massacre isn’t going to change the prospects for national legislation on guns. Nor will the next one, or the one after that, or the steady accumulation of thousands of gun deaths, or the dozens of kids who are killed in accidental shootings every year.
Gun-safety advocates should know by now that if they are going to succeed in moving our nation’s gun laws, it’s going to take a long time — perhaps measured not in years but in decades. After all, that’s how the other side did it. As Michael Waldman (no relation) recently explained, it took a decades-long campaign by the National Rifle Association and its allies to transform the understanding of the Second Amendment from a collective right to form a militia into an individual and nearly unlimited right. When the Supreme Court ruled for the first time in 2008 that such an individual right exists, they weren’t clarifying our understanding of James Madison’s intentions but responding to a political campaign that allowed the conservative members to create this new right.
The NRA says that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” but somehow bad guys keep shooting innocent people even though we have more supposedly good guys with guns than anywhere else. It’s quite the mystery. But if 20 schoolchildren getting slaughtered in Newtown, Conn., didn’t create the conditions for new gun legislation to succeed in the short term, it’s hard to imagine that any one event could.
People in other countries look at the United States, where it seems as if everyone’s allowed to buy as much as they want of almost any weapon they want and lawmakers think it’s okay to have guns in bars and think that we’ve gone mad. In some ways, maybe we have. It isn’t impossible that our gun laws could be brought back to a place of sanity. But if it’s going to happen, it’ll take a very long time.