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Three reasons you should expect congressional gridlock on gun control

With gun control advocates facing off against gun rights groups after Parkland, each side is trying to set goalposts for what is - and isn't - on the table. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Since the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students have been crusading for tightening gun laws and expanding mental-health resources — and have put those issues firmly in public discussion. Some congressional lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have endorsed various ways to tighten gun laws, including Florida’s two U.S. senators — Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio. President Trump — whose 2016 election was backed by $31 million from the National Rifle Association — suggested several proposals that he might support, including a minimum age to buy firearms and a ban on bump stocks, both of which the NRA opposes.

Still, despite glimmers of bipartisanship and broad public support for regulating gun ownership, many doubt Congress will act. According to a recent USA Today poll, fewer than 1 in 5 Americans think the odds of action are excellent or good. More than three-quarters rate them fair or poor.

Why is it so hard to regulate guns — even though gun regulation is so popular?

Congress might still act. Since the 1970s, the percent of American households with guns has dropped significantly, from 50 to 34 percent, across almost every demographic. The passionate Florida students — backed by pro-gun regulation organizations — may be particularly effective voices for reform. We might see some congressional baby steps, such as a bipartisan bill to improve the federal background checks system or ban bump stocks.

But skeptics could be right. Here are three main barriers to congressional action.

1. Gun regulation is not part of the GOP agenda

For any gun regulation to pass, the GOP leadership in both chambers would have to support putting it on the floor. That’s unlikely. Large majorities of Republicans back the NRA’s opposition to any limits on access to guns. As political scientists Matthew Lacombe and David Karol argue, the NRA’s vocal activism and social networks of gun owners make it particularly influential.

Republican leaders don’t feel obligated to bring up popular measures for a direct vote, no matter how much support those measures may have.

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Consider the fact that even though Republican voters supported allowing DACA recipients to stay in the country, GOP leaders dragged their feet on doing so — and their legislative effort to protect them failed. Senate Democrats had to shut down the government to extract a promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that the Senate would consider immigration — and yet bipartisan proposals didn’t gather the supermajority support required under Senate rules to bring the measures to a vote. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has thus far dodged debate by refusing to call up any proposal that the president opposes. Because Trump pegged his support for the “dreamers” to cuts in legal immigration — a proposal that divides Republicans — action on the dreamers is in limbo.

2. It’s a GOP wedge issue

Any proposals making it harder for Americans to buy guns will divide Republican lawmakers. Some of them support — and others oppose — measures such as strengthening background checks for gun purchases, raising the minimum age for purchasing a rifle and reinstating a ban on the sale of assault weapons. If Stoneman Douglas students keep a spotlight on gun laws, more Republicans probably will disagree among themselves.

Party leaders hate bringing measures to the floor that will crack the party. We saw the results during the health-care debates: Such votes blur the party brand by dividing rank-and-file lawmakers — and making it harder to show voters how the parties differ. Gun regulation can divide Democrats, as well. But fewer Democrats represent strong gun-rights constituencies because the party has lost much of its conservative-to-moderate flank.

In theory, Trump’s support last week for “comprehensive” background checks, raising the minimum age for some gun purchases to 21, and banning “bump stocks” could reduce opposition from the party’s Second Amendment devotees, thus giving political cover for a bipartisan action.

But that’s not looking likely. Few Republicans seem eager to risk support back home from their party base. Nor do they trust Trump not to change his proposals, which right now marry any gun regulation with proposals to “harden” schools by arming teachers or to expand Americans’ rights to carry concealed weapons with interstate “reciprocity.” Texans, for instance, with a license to carry a concealed gun would also be free to do so in Massachusetts, which has no such law.

That’s precisely the model Trump followed on immigration: After publicly endorsing a stand-alone vote to protect the dreamers, Trump reversed course and insisted that DACA protections be matched with legal immigration limits. In doing so, he alienated the Democrats.

You need two things for a successful anti-violence movement. Post-Parkland activism about guns has both.

That’s the path House Republicans took last year: They paired changes to national background checks with expanded rights to carry a concealed weapon. So long as Republican leaders worry more about turning out their base in the 2018 midterm elections than avoiding public blame for inaction, they are unlikely to block poison-pill amendments.

3. The public expects gridlock

Economists talk about “anchored” inflation expectations: The American public expects inflation to remain low, even if wages and prices go up for a short time. That expectation helps to keep inflation anchored.

Expectations of gridlock are also fairly well anchored: Few expect Congress to act after the Parkland shooting. After all, Congress has a lousy track record. Lawmakers haven’t been able to act on most controversial issues, except taxes, where Republican ideology is unified. What’s more, Congress didn’t act after any other recent mass shooting, and there have been plenty of them — including the 2012 murder of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

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However, that expectation of Capitol Hill gridlock might spur state legislatures to act — especially in purple states such as Florida, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott is supposed to be considering challenging Nelson, who is up for reelection this year. You might read that between the lines of Scott’s proposal to bolster school security and outlaw gun purchases by anyone under the age of 21. The Stoneman Douglas students have sparked enough public pressure to force action so close to the latest such crime.

Perhaps that is why this time feels different for many close observers of gun politics. Granted, it’s too early to tell whether a changing public mood and an NRA-supported Republican president will push Congress to act. But Stoneman Douglas students seem unwilling to accept the idea that lawmakers are doomed to stalemate. As only teenagers could put it, “we call B.S.”