Democrats in the House of Representatives are to be commended for their sit-in Wednesday night, demanding a vote on gun safety measures in the wake of the Orlando massacre. Early Thursday morning, an exasperated House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) abruptly adjourned the House until after the July 4 holiday, averting a vote on guns.
Will we see more concerted action by lawmakers on gun safety, though? That depends on us.
After Orlando, and through the Senate’s failed votes on gun safety, much scorn was heaped on craven and weak-willed politicians who submit to the National Rifle Association’s radical and uncompromising agenda. But we cannot ignore the American public’s complicity here. For, ultimately, it comes down to us, the voters who do not shout loudly enough or lobby persistently enough for change.
Polls consistently reveal that voters in most states do not endorse many existing gun policies — or loopholes. In some cases, this is by wide margins. In the months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012, 90 percent of Americans reported that they favored universal background checks for gun sales. But Congress never closed the background check loophole, despite voter sentiment. Voters did not make their representatives pay for ignoring them. Some notable Democrats, including Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), opposed the reform because, we were told, they wanted to hang onto their seats in red states, and needed to hype conservative credentials. They were turned out of office anyway — and replaced by NRA-allied Republicans.
This has been repeated at the state level. In 2014, Georgia legislators passed a “guns everywhere” bill, which, as the name suggests, greatly expanded the number of places people can carry guns — including restaurants and bars, government buildings and airports, even churches, if pastors approve. A considerable majority of Georgians objected to the bill. That didn’t stop lawmakers from passing it.
In Missouri, recently, legislators passed an outrageous measure legalizing permitless carry. As the name suggests, it would allow gun owners to exercise concealed carry without a permit—and no safety training. This is an obviously bad idea: with permitless carry, Missourians won’t know if the gun carrier before them is a ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy,’ much less a careful, responsible gun owner. Unsurprisingly, polls indicate that most Missourians disapprove of this bill.
Will Missourians punish their lawmakers? How about voters in Georgia? Clearly, the lawmakers believe they are safe passing these bills in defiance of the electorate. Thus far, they have been proven right.
We know what the public wants. It wants universal background checks, and it wants to include terror suspects in the federal background check system, which has inexplicably not been the case up to now. Voters across the country, even in conservative states do not support the policies pushed by the NRA. A small minority of radical gun rights advocates drives the movement at this point. Even most NRA members say they favor universal background checks — which NRA leadership opposes.
We must conclude that voters — the majority that favor gun safety — simply do not prioritize it. They are not sufficiently, or enduringly, outraged by the NRA’s outrageous agenda, and its bloody results. As for the minority of gun rights advocates, they are all too successful in making their extremist will known, consistently, passionately.
Consider this parable on gun politics from Colorado: After the movie theater shooting in Aurora in 2012, state lawmakers passed stronger gun safety laws, including expanded background checks, and a ban on the sale of large capacity ammunition magazines. Democratic lawmakers championed the bills, led by the state Senate president. Two of those lawmakers subsequently faced recalls, including the Senate president, and both lost, even though one was from a very safe Democratic district. It turns out ardent gun rights advocates came out to vote in droves, and deposed the two lawmakers; voters sympathetic to gun safety measures did not save them.
Voters have not yet given politicians reason to believe they care enough about gun safety. They certainly haven’t given politicians reason to believe they will save their jobs. I realize this is not the case in some states, where voters have insisted on important gun safety reforms — Maryland, California, Oregon, New York. But in other states, indeed in most of the country, there is something else afoot.
Why don’t massacres at Sandy Hook, Aurora, Charleston and now Orlando inspire voters who support gun safety to make it a principal demand? Why doesn’t the ongoing carnage in our urban centers, and the obscene death toll wrought by gun violence, outrage voters, and embarrass them before the rest of the world? Gun rights advocates certainly prioritize their position; they are single-issue voters par excellence. And they are richly rewarded for it.
It is easy to give up in the face of very passionate, intensely angry gun rights advocates, who shout down the opposition. These are some of the loudest, most intense voices in our democracy. Their passion never flags. And in the democratic forum, they are too willing to issue ugly statements.
Voters who support gun safety must fight. There are some principled and courageous elected officials ready to battle the NRA. They need the vocal, and committed, and consistent support of voters — to balance the passion of the other side. There are also private citizens willing to take office and fight the NRA. They must be voted in, and the weak-willed and corrupt voted out.