The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Richard Martinez’s grief won’t change the gun debate. It just won’t.

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By now, you've likely seen or read the angry denunciations of Congress and the gun industry by Richard Martinez, whose son, Chris, was killed in a shooting in Isla Vista, Calif., over the Memorial Day weekend.

"Today, I’m going to ask every person I can find to send a postcard to every politician they can think of with three words on it: Not one more,” Martinez told The Washington Post's Kimberly Kindy on Tuesday morning. "People are looking for something to do. I’m asking people to stand up for something. Enough is enough.”  Martinez added a stern message to politicians up to and including President Obama: “I don't care about your sympathy. I don't give a s--- that you feel sorry for me. Get to work and do something. I'll tell the president the same thing if he calls me. Getting a call from a politician doesn’t impress me.”

His grief and anger is hard to look away from. As a father of two boys who gets worked up when either one of them gets a fever, the thought of losing one of them to this sort of act of violence makes his emotion all the more real and affecting for me. The tendency in the wake of these shootings — and the emergence of people like Richard Martinez — is to think that his pain and loss will be the tipping point when it comes to legislating guns.

But it almost certainly won't be that galvanizing moment. In the same way that the attempted assassination of then-Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords wasn't. In the same way the deaths of 20 children in Newtown wasn't. (In fact, since Newtown, more states have loosened gun laws than have tightened them.)

The simple fact is that tragedies involving guns do not move the political needle — whether you are talking about public opinion or the actions of politicians —  in any meaningful way.  Check out this chart from Gallup detailing peoples' thoughts on gun laws from 1990 through the end of 2013.

As you can see, the numbers of those advocating for "more strict" gun laws have dwindled steadily over the past two decades. The one recent bump for stricter laws came in the wake of the Newtown shootings but, as anyone who has followed the politics of the issue even casually knows, the attempt by the Obama administration to enact sweeping gun measures in the wake of that tragedy failed.  Current support (as of October 2013) for stricter gun laws is lower than it was from 2000 to 2006. As the Gallup pollsters conclude in a memo on their October 2012 numbers: "Numerous mass shootings have occurred in the U.S. in the past decade. However, during this time, aside from the passing surge of support for stricter gun laws after the Newtown shootings, Americans' support for gun control has tapered."

Sure, the trend line doesn't look good for advocates of stricter gun laws, but support for tightening laws hovers around a simple majority of the electorate. Given that, it's easy to see how Richard Martinez and like-minded people can expect Congress to act. But that supposition misses a fundamental truth about politics: Passion almost always matters more than public support. For those who oppose tighter gun laws, it is an absolute passion and oftentimes the single most important issue on which they make decisions about which candidates to support. For those who support further strictures on guns, it is an issue they believe in but not necessarily one on which they are willing to set aside everything else for.

Yes, Richard Martinez's grief is powerful. But it is also fleeting in the American consciousness.

If the slaughter of 20 children at their elementary school didn't change things, it's hard to believe that Richard Martinez's anger — or virtually anything else — will.