By Francis Wilkinson/Bloomberg View
Perhaps last week’s gun massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, will turn the red tide. The kids seem to be taking matters in their own trembling hands, staging a gun-violence march and calling out the politicians, including Florida Governor Rick Scott and the president whose election benefited from $30mn in National Rifle Association spending (that we know of), neither of whom has exhibited, in his official capacities, much discomfort about the ease with which unstable men acquire arsenals.
During his tenure, Scott signed a few of the gun-nut bills that form the stations of the NRA cross, including an unconstitutional abomination preventing physicians from discussing firearms with patients, effectively killing the First Amendment in order to sanctify the Second. With high schoolers on the march, he’s suddenly expressing concern about the nexus of guns and mental health.
That’s largely a dodge, a way to deflect attention from the material and regulation-responsive world of guns to the ephemeral and difficult-to-regulate realm of the mind. But if the kids keep up the pressure, perhaps America will see some genuine adaptation from the political species.
While the kids, eloquent and impassioned, have put the pols on the defensive, they can’t command the spotlight forever. They have trauma to overcome and lives to reclaim. Taking their pain and outrage, and channelling it into a productive public policy outcome, is a job for a movement, and a decent political party to realise the movement’s goals.
The movement exists. Three of today’s leading gun regulation groups, Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense (both supported by Bloomberg LP founder Michael Bloomberg) and the Giffords Law Centre to Prevent Gun Violence were started in the 21st century. The advocacy infrastructure was ready to seize the moment created by the Parkland high schoolers.
As for a political party, only one major party declines to play Igor to the NRA’s Frankenstein, only one objects to enabling any random fool with an itch to carry military-grade firearms.
Yet not all Democrats seem to grasp the moment as clearly as the gun regulation advocates do. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, a state that in recent years has made great strides in regulating guns, previously proposed a ban on assault weapons. Now she has also proposed raising the age at which an American can purchase a semi-automatic rifle to 21. (The Parkland shooter, 19 and a known threat, was free to buy an AR-15 in Florida.) The time for such incrementalism, itself a product of residual fear of the gun lobby and election defeats past, is gone. Democrats need to aim much higher.
Guns are a wholly partisan issue now. The NRA has deployed its resources to defeat even gun-compliant Democrats, such as former Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas. The organisation is not merely a gun lobby. It’s a reactionary organisation steeped in racial identity politics and violent rhetoric. (Its next step may be more paramilitary than political.)
There is no decent way to accommodate that threat. Democrats must confront it.
While guns-everywhere-for-anybody has largely been the trend in red states, blue states from Hawaii to Connecticut have been moving in the opposite direction. As a result, Democrats have ready, off-the-shelf solutions at hand. They should start promoting them at the national level – without apology or delay.
Take Hawaii. It requires firearms purchasers to obtain a licence and requires almost all guns to be registered. Instead of treating guns like toys, the state treats them like cars – and presumes that operating them requires a modest degree of responsibility. The NRA calls these policies tyranny, but it’s doubtful many Americans will concur with the view that Hawaii is a gulag.
In California, every gun sale requires a background check processed through a licensed dealer. In addition, family members or authorities can obtain a court order to restrict a dangerous person’s legal access to guns. In 2016, voters in the state approved reforms including point-of-sale background check on ammunition purchases – the first in the nation.
Connecticut has many similar laws – including a two-week waiting period on long-gun sales from dealers and the required reporting of prohibited individuals to the background-check database.
These laws are constitutional. And while they are sometimes undermined by the guns-everywhere laws of other states – California is next to lackadaisical Arizona; Connecticut is up the interstate from Rick Scott’s slapdash Florida – they are making it harder for criminals and the unstable to obtain lethal firepower.
Yet even as such policies advance in many states, discussion of them is largely absent at the federal level. Democrats in Congress must become much more outspoken and ambitious. That may seem ridiculous given that Congress failed even to adopt a universal background check law (one with its own private sale loophole) after the Sandy Hook massacre.
But incrementalism has been both ineffective as policy and as politics. Does anyone really believe that raising the age at which a disturbed youth can purchase an AR-15 from 18 to 21 will have a serious effect on gun violence? Or on motivating someone to vote? Such quarter measures merely inspire cynicism and hopelessness about vanquishing the threat and turning back the fanatics. Cynicism, as Alec MacGillis points out, has its own high cost. Apathy is a bigger political threat to Democrats right now than being labelled “gun grabbers” by the NRA.
Republicans will no doubt continue to enjoy the good graces of the NRA by elevating the rights to possess lethal firepower by random men of no particular qualifications above the rights of others to life. But in many of the suburban House districts that will be pivotal in November’s midterm election, Republicans’ continued capitulation to gun nuttery could prove costly. Support for stricter gun laws has been rising steadily. Support for less strict laws is almost nonexistent.
To make Republicans pay for their devotion to the NRA, Democrats will have to make guns a bigger issue. To make it an effective issue, they will have to offer a vision of something better than continued acquiescence to the homicidal fantasies of every unhinged man in America. Federal gun laws are the product of fanaticism and cowardice. To combat the former, Democrats will have to free themselves of the latter. – Tribune News Service
* Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and US domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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