The Fix | Analysis
October 2, 2017 at 2:16 PM
It's become tragically predictable and almost formulaic at this point: Democrats, frustrated by past inaction after mass shootings, offer a slightly bolder reaction to the newest one.
First it was President Barack Obama encouraging us to “politicize” a 2015 shooting in Oregon. Then it was Democrats shunning the usual “thoughts and prayers” rhetoric. Today, after an unprecedented tragedy in Las Vegas, it's Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) telling Congress to “get off its ass and do something,” and it's Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) refusing to take part in a moment of silence.
It's part exasperation, and it's part recognition that the old methods just haven't worked. It's also very likely in vain.
There is arguably no issue on which the two sides of the American political debate simply don't understand or empathize with one another more than guns. Democrats see the latest mass shooting and simply cannot understand how Republicans wouldn't want to pass a bill. Republicans see Democrats as demonizing the weapon rather than the perpetrator and trying to exploit tragedy to roll back a constitutional freedom that they don't like.
A major reason this stalemate will continue is that Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the presidency. These efforts failed when President Obama was in office and Democrats had some control of Congress, and it's very, very unlikely that will change now. In addition, if Congress wasn't spurred to action by 20 first-graders being massacred in Connecticut or the last time we had a new “worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history” in 2016, will 58 deaths in Las Vegas really change things?
But perhaps the biggest reason it won't is that the two sides don't even agree on the fundamentals. Democrats are fond of pointing out that 8 in 10 or 9 in 10 Americans favor expanded background checks for gun purchases. That's true, but it also masks another important reality: Republicans just don't think legislation is the answer, period.
In June 2016, Quinnipiac University asked whether people supported a ban on “assault weapons” — a.k.a. semiautomatic ones. About 6 in 10 Americans (59 percent) supported it, including 4 in 10 Republicans (40 percent). But when the pollster asked whether such a ban would be effective in reducing gun violence, Americans actually disagreed by a small margin, 49-47. Just 24 percent of Republicans thought it would be effective, while 70 percent said it wouldn't.
The story was similar on background checks: While 93 percent of all people and 90 percent of Republicans said they supported background checks for all gun purchases, only 62 percent overall and 42 percent of Republicans thought it would actually reduce gun violence. A majority of Republicans (53 percent) again felt it wouldn't help at all.
And in fact, multiple polls have shown a large percentage of Americans think the answer is more guns, not fewer. A Washington Post-ABC News poll that same month showed that 54 percent would encourage more people to carry guns legally for self-defense. Just 42 percent discouraged it.
A December 2015 Post-ABC poll showed something similar: 47 percent thought more people legally carrying guns was the answer to stopping terrorism, while 42 percent preferred stricter gun laws. And an October 2015 Gallup poll showed 56 percent thought we'd be safer with more concealed weapons, while just 41 percent think we'd be less safe.
There may be some gun-control measures that could gain substantial public support after Las Vegas, up to and including background checks, magazine limits and an assault weapons ban. (It's worth noting that we are still awaiting word on the shooter's arsenal — including whether the guns were purchased legally.) But half of America simply doesn't see these things as addressing the problem, and that creates almost no impetus for action — especially within the all-important Republican Party. And if you don't think these address the problem, you're more likely to believe specific proposals overreach into “gun grabs.”
Another mass shooting — even the worst in modern U.S. history — is unlikely to change anything when it comes to that fundamental disconnect. Once again, one side won't see legislation as the answer, and once again, the other side will be apoplectic that the other won't help rein in the weapons being used to slaughter their fellow Americans.