People protest against guns on the steps of the Broward County federal courthouse last week in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

The Post reports on the latest poll on guns:

The Post-ABC poll … finds that 58 percent of adults say stricter gun control laws could have prevented the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, but there is no rise in support for banning assault weapons compared with two years ago and the partisan divide on this policy is as stark as ever. On the issue of whether allowing teachers to carry guns could have deterred the rampage, a proposal Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said is an option for schools, 42 percent said they agreed. …

The use of high-powered semiautomatic rifles in recent mass shootings, including by [alleged shooter Nikolas] Cruz, police say, and in last year’s killing of 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas, has sparked calls to reinstate the 10-year ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004.

But Americans are roughly split on this proposal, with 50 percent in support and 46 percent opposed, a stark contrast from the 80 percent support for the ban in 1994, the year it was enacted. The current level of support is little different from 51 percent in 2016.

Whatever you may think of the idea, the decline in support for a ban on some types of weaponry should be a wake-up call to those looking to pass new legislation. It’s first important to understand how this happened.

The National Rifle Association has a single, undiluted message: No restrictions on guns. People are the problem. But advocates for new gun laws have been all over the lot: Restrict handguns. Restrict semiautomatic weapons. Ban dangerous people from getting guns. They have not even found a name to identify themselves (anti-gun? gun restrictionists? anti-NRA?). They’ve done even worse when it comes to making the case for a ban on certain classes of weapons. The NRA forces insist that the 1994 assault weapons ban was a “failure.” The counter-argument has been muddled.

Aside from the shortcomings in public persuasion, those looking to ban weapons such as the AR-15 have been caught up in the culture wars. Gun ownership — any gun by anyone and anywhere — has become another tribal identity. It’s another box to check in setting the division between blue and red. If the issue becomes urban elites vs. rural conservatives, then the merits don’t matter, the facts don’t matter, and compromise — let alone resolution — becomes impossible.

Plainly, for those who advocate more gun measures, the strategy must be to start small, win where they can and bring the public along on a larger message that gun rights, like First Amendment rights, are not absolute and must operate within the context of people’s rights to safety and security. (The quintessential example of screaming “Fire!” in a crowded theater or prohibitions on deceptive advertising come to mind.)

Meanwhile, the terms of the debate are shifting thanks to the articulate, determined student survivors of the Parkland, Fla., massacre. The Post reports:

President Trump said Monday that he is open to improving the background check system used to screen those who buy firearms, a measure that has bipartisan support and the backing of the National Rifle Association. Trump spoke about the legislation with one of its co-sponsors, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), on Friday.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he supports gun violence restraining-order laws, which allow firearms to be seized before a person commits a violent act. The laws have been gaining conservative backers in the wake of the Parkland shooting, which killed 17 people, most of them teenagers. …

Ironically, the Parkland students have intuitively reached the most effective legislative strategy. They support anything that might have any effect in diminishing gun violence. Even if the Cornyn-Murphy registration measure is simply to improve the existing system, and even if it is so mild that even the NRA supports it, they should take it if they can get it.

The same is true on banning so-called bump stocks. (Didn’t Trump promise to look at that, too?) Restraining orders to remove guns from the hands of dangerous people, at least temporarily, subject to a court hearing, may be the boldest idea in years on the topic. (“There is now hope that restraining-order laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders, will gain momentum in statehouses. ‘It is a law that allows for due process, and it gives family members and law enforcement tools to remove guns from a tragedy before a tragedy occurs,’ said Andrew Patrick, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Patrick said it is ‘huge”’that Rubio supports the laws and that there was an article in the conservative National Review urging Republicans to support the measures.”)

And if we can get more than vocal support for mental-health services — to fully fund mental-health services for the poor, for example — that would be a victory as well.

In this arena, I truly believe success will beget success. Once gun-safety advocates can demonstrate that they don’t want to ban all guns, and once gun advocates can show some awareness that gun absolutism is politically unsustainable, further efforts can be undertaken. In short, resetting the needle from absolutely no gun laws to some gun laws would be a major accomplishment.

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