Somewhere in the back of their minds, gun-controllers must know a total ban has to be the goal if you really want to stop mass shootings. The firepower needed to kill an elk is greater than what is needed to kill a human; start leaving exceptions for hunters or “sportsmen” or some other politically palatable category, and you’ve left a wide opening for mass shooters to get their hands on deadly firepower. Which is perhaps why Australia’s massive gun ban and buyback has become such a popular talking point for those supporting stricter gun control.
The problem for gun-controllers is that “ban guns” is not particularly popular in the United States. Worse, it has been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. No amount of verbal gymnastics is going to get the current court to read “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” out of the Second Amendment. Which leaves only one open path: repeal the Second Amendment.
Which is exactly what retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens proposed this week in an op-ed for the New York Times, to the predictable cheers from the left and jeers from the right. Neither side, however, addressed the obvious omission in that short op-ed: how, exactly do we bell that cat? Not easily, that’s for sure.
There are two ways to amend the Constitution. The first — a new constitutional convention — is both unlikely and dangerous; unlikely because you need a two-thirds majority of state legislatures to vote to call one, and dangerous because there’s no procedure in the Constitution for limiting the convention to a narrow set of issues or procedures. Once called, the convention can make its own rules and do whatever it wants, so liberals happily contemplating the end of the Second Amendment might look up to find the convention was busy gutting the Fourth and the Fifth amendments instead.
What about the second path? Well, first you would need two-thirds majorities of both the House and Senate to pass a proposed amendment. Then you would need to get three-quarters of all the state legislatures to ratify it. This means convincing a majority of the voters, in a super-majority of the country’s legislative districts, to support politicians who support repeal.
If you haven’t looked too deeply into the politics, that probably sounds easier than it actually is. Don’t majorities of people say they favor gun control?
As with most questions about polling, the answer is “Yes, but . . .” How you word poll questions matters a lot; vague phrases such as “tighter gun control,” or fine-sounding but not-very-effective measures such as “stronger background checks,” are going to poll better than “ban all guns.” “Repeal the second amendment” currently polls at about 20 percent.
The prospects for repeal are even worse than that number suggests. Since political offices are apportioned geographically, it doesn’t do any good to have 90-percent majorities supporting something in a handful of high-population cities, while the rest of the country stands opposed. Not only would repeal supporters need to find a lot of voters in the right places, they would also need those voters to be highly motivated. Gun owners may be a minority of the population, but they really care about their right to own those guns. If a politician threatens to take their guns away, they will make sure they get to the polling place come November to vote against that politician, even if they support his other policy proposals.
Support for gun control is broader, but it’s also weaker. Since shootings are fairly uncommon, when we actually go to the ballot box, gun control tends to rank well below things that more directly affect our daily lives — such as taxes, schools and the quality of government services.
When one side of an issue is willing to tell pollsters they support something, and the other side of the issue is willing to act on their beliefs, the side that acts tends to win, even if they are numerically smaller. This fundamental electoral math explains a lot of seeming anomalies in American politics, including the gap between gun polls and gun policy.
In recent days, there’s been some suggestion that this is changing, that gun-controllers are getting just as intense about this issue as their opponents. Perhaps. But six months from now, when the Parkland, Fla., shooting is out of the news, gun owners will still own their guns, and they will still care intensely about keeping them. The people currently telling pollsters they will vote on the gun issue may still feel that way — but they may also have moved on to some other issue that is fresher in their minds or closer to their daily lives.
The good news for gun-controllers is that school shootings, and mass shootings in general are, in fact, pretty rare — not rare enough, unfortunately, but too rare to feel like a personal issue to most voters, most of the time. The bad news is that this makes it very difficult to get the critical political mass you’d need to make them even rarer.