The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The rapid devolution of the gun debate

Democrats pushed for action on gun violence on March 23 following a mass shooting in Boulder, Colo. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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In the summer of 2019, a spate of mass shootings seemed to light a fire beneath lawmakers to come together to do, well, something.

“The proximity of the shootings … has galvanized people,” asserted Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “We’re determined that we take something up.”

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said: “This is the moment. When you have two incidents like that in the same weekend, I think conservatives and Republicans lose in the long run if we don’t do something to change the dynamic. And I’m about as hard a Second Amendment guy as there is.”

After a second mass shooting in the space of a month in Texas, even its very conservative leaders sensed it was the moment to act. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) said he was “willing to take an arrow” from the National Rifle Association.

Today, after two major mass shootings in a week, in Atlanta and Boulder, Colo. — and after many previous suggestions that now might be the time — Republicans and Congress as a whole have apparently given up even trying to pretend they will do anything big. The relatively rapid devolution in the debate reflects both the readily apparent realities of it and the increasing defeatism and partisanship in Washington.

And an exchange Tuesday involving Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) drove that home.

A day after the shooting in Boulder, Cruz bristled at gun restrictions proposed by Democrats and their criticisms that the “thoughts and prayers” offered by his fellow Republicans and him were insufficient.

“Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders,” Cruz said. He added, “What happens in this committee after every mass shooting is Democrats propose taking away guns from law-abiding citizens, because that’s their political agenda.”

Sen. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.) said she had become convinced that Democrats were merely using the tragedies as an excuse to “abolish our rights.” Other Republicans quickly said expanding background checks in any way was a total nonstarter. And the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, acknowledged that there was “not big appetite among our members to do things that would appear to be addressing it but don’t actually do anything to fix the problem.” Fox News’s prime-time hosts, too, rather quickly framed the debate as an attempt at gun-grabbing.

It was a progression that typically happens over a much longer period. In the aftermath of such tragedies, Republicans will generally not weigh in at length or will express a broad desire to come together, in some form.

But in recent years, Democrats have pushed the envelope, becoming more aggressive in their quest for action, and Republicans have, in turn, become more aggressive in pushing back quickly.

Starting about five years ago, Democrats made a significant pivot from waiting to push for legislation. In 2016, President Barack Obama sought to flip Republicans’ allegations that Democrats were politicizing the shootings against them; he said that such shootings should be politicized, because the moment demanded action.

In the intervening years, Democrats and their allies have also increasingly pushed back on Republicans who have urged “thoughts and prayers” in the aftermath of such tragedies — the same objections that raised Cruz’s ire on Tuesday.

The result, as I wrote Tuesday, was an effective skipping forward when it comes to where this debate will eventually land.

One of the most telling aspects of the state of the debate might be the lack of talk about “red flag” laws, intended to prevent those with mental health issues from being able to have guns. This was something that even those most resistant to increased background checks have embraced in recent years, and they barely got a mention Tuesday.

But perhaps the biggest hurdle is the resident of the White House. In 2019, there was a Republican president who some Republicans viewed as being malleable on gun restrictions.

“I’m hoping in the next few days, early next week, we’ll have a breakthrough,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said at the time.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), the GOP architect of a failed 2013 effort to increase background checks, added: “He’s very interested. I think he’s learning about this issue.”

Donald Trump was arguably the one Republican who could have turned this debate into a bipartisan one by bringing large portions of the GOP base along with him. He even flirted with the idea that he could bring the NRA to heel. But the president who was ever-concerned with his base perhaps predictably opted against supporting large-scale measures.

Today, there’s no force in the GOP who has that much authority when it comes to where we go from here. And when you combine that with the Democrats’ increasing exasperation with their GOP colleagues and push for quick action, the debate has much more rapidly gone to where it was always likely to end up.