The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion President Obama just identified the one thing that could make real gun reform possible

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In the latest iteration of what has become a thoroughly awful and depressing ritual, President Obama came to the White House press room last night to offer his comments on our latest mass shooting. It was an extraordinary statement in many ways, most of all because Obama, ordinarily so emotionally controlled, did little to hide his anger and disgust. When he began to talk about the politics of guns, he put his finger on something that hasn’t gotten too much attention as we’ve debated this issue.

If you listen to liberals talk about guns these days, what you hear more than anything else is a combination of despair and resignation: we get massacre after massacre after massacre, and we never do anything about it. The closest we came to passing some reasonable limits on the ease with which people can obtain deadly weaponry came after the Sandy Hook shooting, when the Manchin-Toomey bill died after failing to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate. And if we can’t pass something like universal background checks when 20 elementary school children are gunned down, when could we?

If the answer is ever going to be something other than “never,” it may require breaking the power — both real and assumed — of the National Rifle Association. And Obama may have identified the only way that could happen. Here’s part of what he said yesterday:

And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation. Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out: We need more guns, they’ll argue. Fewer gun safety laws.
Does anybody really believe that? There are scores of responsible gun owners in this country – they know that’s not true. We know because of the polling that says the majority of Americans understand we should be changing these laws — including the majority of responsible, law-abiding gun owners.
There is a gun for roughly every man, woman, and child in America. So how can you, with a straight face, make the argument that more guns will make us safer? We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. So the notion that gun laws don’t work, or just will make it harder for law-abiding citizens and criminals will still get their guns is not borne out by the evidence….
This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction. When Americans are killed in mine disasters, we work to make mines safer. When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer. When roads are unsafe, we fix them to reduce auto fatalities. We have seatbelt laws because we know it saves lives. So the notion that gun violence is somehow different, that our freedom and our Constitution prohibits any modest regulation of how we use a deadly weapon, when there are law-abiding gun owners all across the country who could hunt and protect their families and do everything they do under such regulations doesn’t make sense.
So, tonight, as those of us who are lucky enough to hug our kids a little closer are thinking about the families who aren’t so fortunate, I’d ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save lives, and to let young people grow up. And that will require a change of politics on this issue. And it will require that the American people, individually, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican or an independent, when you decide to vote for somebody, are making a determination as to whether this cause of continuing death for innocent people should be a relevant factor in your decision. If you think this is a problem, then you should expect your elected officials to reflect your views.
And I would particularly ask America’s gun owners — who are using those guns properly, safely, to hunt, for sport, for protecting their families — to think about whether your views are properly being represented by the organization that suggests it’s speaking for you.

What Obama seems to want to do is drive a wedge between America’s gun owners and the NRA. Is that possible? Maybe, but it would certainly be difficult. What we can say for sure is that nothing would be more terrifying for the NRA.

The NRA’s power is complicated, but it depends on everyone assuming that that power is enormous, which in turn depends on the idea that they represent all of America’s gun owners. That Manchin-Toomey bill in 2013 was a rare case of a gun control bill actually coming up for a vote, but most of the time, what happens in Congress is that such legislation not only doesn’t get debated, it never even gets written in the first place, because everyone assumes it’s futile. The NRA would kill it, so why bother?

Thus it is that the group exercises a kind of passive deterrent power, a power they never actually have to use. When they do try to use their power — in elections — they’re actually not that successful. People believe that having the NRA against you is a guarantee of defeat, but the evidence actually shows that it doesn’t make much of a difference. When Republicans have a good year, like in 2010 or 2014, the NRA rushes out and says, “That was because of us! You’ll lose if you don’t oppose all gun laws!” But when Republicans have a bad year, like in 2008 or 2012, the organization doesn’t say anything, lest anyone realize that most of the candidates they supported in close races lost.

And Obama is absolutely right when he says that the NRA does not represent the views of all American gun owners. The organization is opposed to most regulation of guns and gun purchases, yet gun owners as a whole are supportive of many kinds of limits. For instance, polls have shown support among gun owners for universal background checks to be over 80 percent (see here or here).

It’s in the NRA’s interest to have everyone believe that there are only two kinds of opinion on this issue — that all Americans are either gun-grabbers or NRA supporters who think no limits should ever be placed on gun purchases. It’s one thing to understand that’s false, but it’s something else to convince politicians that they can take the position most of their constituents take without significant political risk. But it hasn’t really been tried on a large scale. While Democrats in the past have certainly made the point that the NRA is much more extreme than the typical American gun owner (and even, in some cases, more extreme than their own membership), there’s never been much in the way of concerted efforts to organize and heighten the visibility of gun owners who reject the NRA.

There’s a related but distinct problem, which is that opposition to any and all gun legislation has now been written into Republican DNA as firmly as support for tax cuts or opposition to abortion rights. Any Republican who gets elected to Congress, or even the state legislature, is almost certain to take the doctrinaire NRA position on gun legislation. The overwhelming majority of the Republicans in Congress who killed Manchin-Toomey didn’t do so grudgingly or out of fear. They did it because they actually believe that enacting such a law would be a terrible infringement on all our freedom.

Nothing is permanent in politics, though. It’s possible that over time there might be more Republicans elected who take the position that you can respect the basic right to own a gun but not sign on to the NRA’s deranged vision of a society where everyone is armed and the answer to the fact that mass shootings occur in America at a rate of about one per day is to put more guns in more people’s hands in more places at more times. It’s possible that everyone could come to see the NRA as a radical group with bizarre and dangerous ideas supported by only a small minority of Americans, and the most politically advantageous position for a Republican to take would be stop well short of where the NRA is on this issue.

It’s possible. But getting there won’t be easy.