In the days since 14 students and three faculty members were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., we’ve seen national outrage: Douglas students have made passionate speeches, students at a neighboring South Florida high school staged a walkout, busloads of Parkland students traveled to Tallahassee to lobby Florida state legislators for stricter gun laws, and a nationwide effort is underway to organize a march in Washington next month.
In response, President Trump has said he “signed a memo directing his attorney general to propose regulations that ban all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns” — banning, in other words, the use of “bump stocks.” Those are devices that can convert a legal semiautomatic rifle into an illegal fully-automatic rifle — in effect, making sure that what was already illegal still is. On Tuesday, with high school students watching tearfully from the gallery, the Republican-controlled Florida House voted 71 to 36 against taking up debate about banning large-capacity ammunition magazines and assault-style weapons, which would include the AR-15, the type of weapon used in the mass killing at Douglas.
Because groups such as the National Rifle Association and many gun owners long ago adopted a zero-compromise approach. They’ve enforced their agenda in Congress and statehouses by relentlessly casting the gun debate as an issue of identity, treating any incremental restriction on gun ownership as a step toward stripping Americans of constitutional rights, bolstering a cadre of single-issue gun-rights voters. Gun-control advocates haven’t been able to match the messaging, intensity or focus of these efforts. Until they can — until they approach the debate the way the gun -rights advocates do — they won’t turn the tables on the NRA and its maximalist interpretation of the Second Amendment.
Political scientists first recognized the “gun-control paradox” more than 40 years ago. Normally, when a clear majority of the public supports something, policymakers move in that direction. This isn’t surprising; lawmakers have an incentive to please constituents. When the public is ambivalent, or when public responses on an issue vary, depending on how polling questions are phrased, the status quo and mixed-policy outcomes are the expected result.
Today, surveys show that some basic gun-control measures are overwhelmingly popular. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday, 77 percent of respondents said President Trump and Congress aren’t doing enough to stop mass shootings. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday found that 66 percent of voters “support stricter gun laws,” 67 percent support “a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons,” 83 percent support a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases, and an overwhelming 97 percent want universal background checks.
Days after October’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, there was a public push to ban bump stocks, and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Congress should “look into” it. But members of Congress paid lip service to the issue and moved on without a vote. After last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Republicans in Congress and the president have repeatedly wrung their hands over the massacre, but GOP leaders have yet to coalesce around a particular legislative fix.
The usual explanation is that the NRA exerts so much influence in Congress and in state capitols that it has a de facto veto over any attempt to regulate firearms. Indeed, the NRA is an especially organized and well-funded interest group. Many legislators view the group with a mix of fear and awe — CNN reported that nearly all of the GOP members of the Florida House have somewhere between an A-plus and an A-minus rating from the NRA’s Political Victory Fund. The Washington Post found that 52 members of the U.S. Senate, including four Democrats, have “A-minus grades or higher.” But interest groups of similar size, resources and membership don’t dominate policymaking in the same way. And as Vox’s Jeff Stein explains, NRA contributions account for a fraction of Republican fundraising.
The key to the NRA’s success is that gun-control opponents consider the issue more important than do those who favor increased regulation. Gun ownership is central to how they view themselves and define their citizenship. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 74 percent of gun owners say gun ownership is “essential to their own sense of freedom.” For gun-control advocates, by contrast, the issue is often just one of many issues they consider important.
A 2017 analysis found that gun ownership was one of the most reliable predictors of voting preference, with gun-owning households backing Trump 63 percent to 31 percent and households without guns backing former secretary of state Hillary Clinton 65 percent to 30 percent in the 2016 presidential election. GOP candidates know that taking positions that satisfy these constituents is a necessity. Political scientists describe the bloc of vocal pro-gun voters as a reelection constituency. They may be a minority (about 30 percent of voters), but their enthusiasm gives them a disproportionate role in determining their representatives’ fates.
By contrast, not enough gun-control advocates take the same no-compromise approach. Few Americans call gun control their most important issue, and advocates of gun control are far less likely than opponents to contact their elected representatives. A rational officeholder, then, might be loath to agitate pro-gun constituents, while he or she might risk punting on gun control while attempting to appeal to more anti-gun constituents on other issues.
The NRA reinforces this schism through NRATV, its Web portal that blurs gun-control discourse with general right-leaning (and anti-left) political commentary. Its annual convention is on the scale of a major political party convention. And it seizes on the narrative that the best response to gun crime is “a good guy with a gun” — the political outcry immediately after the church massacre in Sutherland Springs, Tex., was leavened by the story of the heroes who chased down the killer.
So as devastating as the Parkland school shooting is, it won’t induce a Hollywood-style change-of-heart moment in which the party in power suddenly sees the light. Change happens when legislators start worrying about gun-control advocates as much as they worry about gun-rights advocates.
Gun-control proponents are already starting from behind. But their odds of changing the political calculus on this issue will improve if they can sustain the intensity of the last several days over the next several weeks, months and years. Their planned March rally has to be big. They have to increase voter registration and turnout. They have to call legislators’ offices — all with the message that in upcoming elections there will be more voters for whom guns are a dealbreaker. And they have to find a touchstone that counters the cultural resonance of gun ownership: Emma Gonzalez’s “We call B.S.” must begin to upend Charlton Heston’s “from my cold dead hands.”
Gun-control opponents have already made guns a dealbreaker. The road toward sensible gun-control legislation begins when gun-control supporters take a page from the NRA’s playbook and do the same.