Could last month’s mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., be the tipping point that finally persuades Americans to accept more stringent gun control?
Though mass shootings are depressingly frequent in the United States, the initial shock and horror after each massacre almost invariably segues to frustrated legislative efforts. This time, however, commentators from both sides of the political spectrum sense something different about the moment. And they are pointing to the history of another historic social movement whose success was far from preordained as inspiration: the campaign for gay marriage.
Last year, in a piece titled “Repeal the Second Amendment,” conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote, “Repealing the Amendment may seem like political Mission Impossible today, but in the era of same-sex marriage it’s worth recalling that most great causes begin as improbable ones.” The Daily Beast’s Eleanor Clift, a liberal, sees similar parallels, observing that the 150,000-plus students who have survived a mass shooting and shared their experiences are producing “the same kind of awakening” as gay people whose coming out of the closet led to a “transformation of attitudes toward same-sex marriage.”
The comparison is compelling. Both movements rest upon a broadening of our moral consciousness. Gay activists successfully portrayed the lack of equal marriage as a cruel denial of rights to fellow citizens, while gun-control advocates can point to the thousands of people who die annually in firearms violence as victims of worse injustice. Eventually, the reasoning goes, opposition to stricter gun control will appear like opposition to marriage equality: retrograde and inhumane. Already, New York Times columnist David Brooks has observed that “certain ideas about gun rights, and maybe gun ownership itself, are being cast in the realm of the morally illegitimate and socially unacceptable,” just like opposition to same-sex marriage.
But there is a critical flaw in this comparison: While gun-control activists indeed appear to be pursuing a strategy similar to that adopted by marriage equality campaigners — culminating in Saturday’s March for Our Lives on the Mall, where speakers attempted to morally shame their adversaries — marriage equality didn’t require straight people to surrender anything. Eventually, it became clear to most heterosexual Americans that allowing gay people to marry would have no detrimental effect on their own marriages or the institution of marriage itself.
Gun control, however, requires Americans to sacrifice something — access to firearms — which many of them consider to be as fundamental a freedom as the right to free speech. These Americans view the Second Amendment in the same absolutist terms as most constitutional experts do the First: inviolable. Deaths of innocent people to gun violence, according to this logic, are the equivalent of hate speech: the regrettable but acceptable price of freedom.
In light of this reality, the annals of American social movements offer a much better, and far more ominous, historical analogy for the gun control crusade: Prohibition. Like Prohibition and unlike gay marriage, some forms of gun control, including confiscation, would require changing the Constitution.
Further, the movement to ban alcohol, like the pushes for gay rights and gun control, was motivated by a steady accretion of moral outrage in response to a clear societal malady: drunkenness. “The culmination of nearly a century of activism, Prohibition was intended to improve, even to ennoble, the lives of all Americans, to protect individuals, families, and society at large from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse,” states the introduction to Ken Burns’s three-part documentary on the temperance movement.
In 1920, the movement achieved what was once unthinkable in a nation of drinkers: a constitutional ban on the production, transport and sale of alcohol in the form of the 18th Amendment.
We all know how that turned out.
The campaigns for gun control and Prohibition are not only similar in their rhetoric, but also their unintended effects. After passage of the 18th Amendment, demand for alcohol never dissipated, which simply drove up its cost as production was diverted underground. Distribution — “bootlegging” — was commandeered by the mafia. As is always the case when black markets develop around the sale of a product — whether it be alcohol, drugs or sex — violent crime rose as rival gangs competed for market share.
By 1921, just a year after the 18th Amendment was ratified, some 30,000 criminal violations related to the statute enforcing it were recorded, a figure that rose throughout the era of Prohibition. Eventually, the crime and social disorder (not to mention cravings for spirits) exceeded whatever benefits were gained by proscribing alcohol, and 13 years after ratification of the 18th Amendment, the 21st Amendment repealed it.
As with temperance crusaders, honest advocates of gun control acknowledge that nothing short of prohibition will put an end to the sort of mass shootings and epidemic gun violence that plagues America. The oft-cited “assault weapons” ban would have little impact on the number of people killed annually by guns; indeed, gun violence is down some 50 percent over the past 25 years in spite of the ban lapsing in 2004 and amid a large rise in gun sales and concealed carry permits.
This reality is why you often hear gun-control supporters mention Australia as an example. After a particularly grisly mass shooting in 1996, the country implemented a compulsory buyback program that essentially amounted to confiscation. But such a move would be impossible in the United States, where many if not most gun owners would never surrender their weapons to the federal government and where a flourishing black market for firearms already exists.
It’s comforting for gun-control advocates to imagine that Americans will someday come around to viewing firearm ownership as they do the denial of civic equality to gay people. That, just as the AIDS crisis humanized gay Americans a generation ago, enough moral suasion and heartfelt testimony by the survivors of mass shootings will persuade the public to drop its attachment to gun rights. This comparison allows them to stand squarely on the side of righteousness. But they should remember that crusaders for Prohibition felt the same way.