The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The gun debate is paralyzed by our past

Flowers, candles and signs are left at a memorial for victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Tex. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
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Memorial Day was first celebrated as Decoration Day, three years after the end of the Civil War, to honor Union soldiers. Unfortunately, the divisions of that long-ago time continue to hinder national progress — most tragically in our paralysis when confronted by unbridled gun violence.

This Memorial Day weekend, we will — and should — honor our war dead. But we do so under a cloud of mourning for the 19 children and two teachers gunned down last week in Uvalde, Tex. We should consider whether the country for which so many have honorably given their lives is doomed to stand alone among peer nations for the criminal stupidity of our firearms statutes.

Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Norway all tightened their gun laws after searing national tragedies. As a result, Max Fisher reported in the New York Times, mass shootings became rarer in those nations, as did homicides and suicides.

We don’t act because the Republican Party, with precious few dissenters, has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the gun lobby and because the U.S. Senate, with a filibuster rule that gives veto power to the minority, vastly overrepresents rural states.

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The upshot? Majority rule is foiled on such broadly popular measures as universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. And the Supreme Court, shaped in recent years by presidents who lost the popular vote, seems poised to make the task of legislating even harder.

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These facts are important because there is far too much loose talk about “politicians” or “governing elites” failing our society on guns. No, there are very specific actors who choose their political interests and an absurd reading of the Second Amendment over the lives of children.

But today’s gun politics did not come from nowhere. The Civil War ended 157 years ago, yet the alignments that led up to and defined that conflict are still very much alive in our politics.

Look first at simple measures. In the Giffords Law Center’s list of the 20 states with the toughest gun laws, only Virginia, which tightened its statutes recently, was part of the old Confederacy. Among the 20 states with the lowest rates of gun deaths, Virginia was again the only one that left the Union after Abraham Lincoln was elected. (It’s worth noting that the two parties have, in a broad sense, switched sides. All the states that backed Lincoln in 1860 supported Barack Obama in 2008.)

Tellingly, the data on gun laws and death rates overlap. The two states with the lowest rates of gun deaths, Hawaii and Massachusetts, are among those with the toughest gun measures. The two with the highest gun death rates, Mississippi and Louisiana, were ranked among those with the weakest firearms legislation.

But the influence of the struggles over slavery and secession goes deeper. As the historian Heather Cox Richardson argued in her 2020 book “How the South Won the Civil War,” the North may have prevailed militarily but not, in the long run, politically.

The triumph of Southern-inflected conservatism came first with the dismantling of Reconstruction in 1877, leading to the Jim Crow era of white supremacy. The Southern political ethic was also reflected in the West, she argues, with the rise of the myth of the cowboy and the rugged (White and male) individualism he embodied. Today’s coalition against sensible gun laws is largely an alliance between the South and the non-coastal West.

The battle over the Supreme Court and the meaning of the Constitution also has echoes in Civil War-era clashes. In his 2021 “The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution,” historian James Oakes traced the radical differences in how anti-slavery forces in the North and defenders of slavery in the South read the nation’s founding document.

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The South insisted that the Constitution endorsed slavery while the North argued that the Founders (by, among other things, never explicitly mentioning slavery and insisting on referring to slaves as “persons”) envisioned freedom as the national rule and merely tolerated a temporary exception for the Southern states.

Those who now call themselves “originalists” and claim to be the true arbiters of what the Founders intended — on guns and everything else — willfully ignore the political brawls throughout our history over the meaning and spirit of the words put on paper in 1787.

It is maddening and heartbreaking that our country is so deeply mired in the past that we are incapable of regulating weapons whose ferocity our Founders couldn’t have imagined. The fight for sane gun laws is, first, about the innocent lives extinguished by the failure of our politics. But it is also about moving, at last, into a more humane future.

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