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Sooner or Later, the Barriers to Gun Control Legislation Will Fall

America has reached the point when the political costs of inaction are greater than the risks of enraging the NRA.

September 5, 2019

Three major gun massacres (and hundreds of other shootings) cast a pall over America since Congress took its summer recess in early August. For all the anguish that followed the mass murders in El Paso, Dayton, and now West Texas, history suggests that when the Republican Senate returns next week, it will dither, delay, and ultimately deny a vote to any gun proposal.

Certainly the wildly conflicting statements from President Trump on gun legislation offer scant encouragement. In mid-August, Trump appeared to support universal background checks for gun ownership — and then he entered Wayne’s World. Repeated phone calls from Trump’s golf resort to NRA President Wayne LaPierre prompted the president to absurdly insist, “People don’t realize we have very strong background checks right now.”

Back at the White House, Trump, according to Time magazine, interrupted a discussion of possible gun legislation to announce, “Let’s call Wayne right now. Let’s see what Wayne is saying.”

Needless to say, LaPierre has a one-word vocabulary about all gun-control legislation: “No.”

In a rational universe, LaPierre would be regarded as damaged goods rather than Trump’s favorite confidant on guns. Mired in scandal over LaPierre’s lavish spending habits and reeling from the recent resignations of seven board members, the NRA is as tattered as a used paper rifle target. In the 2018 campaign cycle, the once feared organization spent only $9.6 million overall — and gave only one candidate (Republican Marsha Blackburn running for the Senate in Tennessee) more than $10,000.

But Trump’s ritual show of obeisance to LaPierre and the NRA no longer represents the last word. The truth is that — more than after prior tragedies like Sandy Hook Elementary School and Parkland high school — the long-term prospects for strong gun legislation are finally improving.

It would be significant even if Congress ended up merely passing something as seemingly minor as “red-flag” legislation that would, in certain cases, allow courts to take guns away from people who represent a threat to the public. The historical parallel would be the toothless 1957 Civil Rights Act that — as Robert Caro demonstrated in his epic account of Lyndon Johnson’s years as majority leader in Master of the Senate — paved the way for future legislative victories by demonstrating that Southern segregationists could be defeated.

So what has changed in Washington?

Even though the polls have long identified overwhelming majorities of voters supporting legislation like universal background checks, the Republican Party for years could safely maintain its stance as the party of the NRA and extreme interpretations of the Second Amendment. The logic was that NRA supporters were single-issue voters while gun control advocates (like most Americans) chose their candidates based on a variety of political topics. But in recent years, according to the polls, as many Democrats as Republicans say they will only vote for candidates who share their views on guns.

The 2018 elections also highlighted a trend that had been masked by Trump’s 2016 election — affluent suburban voters, particularly women, are fleeing the GOP. Nearly 60 percent of college-educated women voted Democratic in the 2018 House elections, according to exit polls. The Democratic sweep included victories along the South Carolina coast, in upscale Texas suburbs and in such unlikely spots as Oklahoma City and the suburbs of Salt Lake City.

Few issues have more weight with such suburban voters in transition as guns. A mid-August CNN poll found that just 36 percent of the electorate and only 28 percent of women approve of the way that Trump “is handling gun policy.” It is telling that, according to an August Fox News poll, more than three times as many Americans now fear a mass shooting as worry about a terrorist attack. While there is no survey data, it also seems self-evident that parents feel the immediacy of the gun issue every time their young children have to go through “active shooter drills” in elementary school.

Every time that I write about guns, I feel compelled to quote a political aphorism by the late Republican economist Herbert Stein: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” After a quarter-century of legislative paralysis, America has reached the point when the political costs of inaction are greater than the risks of enraging the gun-rights zealots at the NRA.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell timorously insists on deferring to Trump on all gun issues, saying in a recent interview, “If the president is in favor of a number of things that he has discussed openly and publicly, and I know that if we pass it it’ll become law, I’ll put it on the floor.” But what McConnell misses in his subservience to the whims of the mercurial president is that Trump’s 2020 reelection strategy may be at odds with the long-term self-interest of the Republican Party. In theory, Trump could possibly win in 2020 while writing off educated suburban women. But it is impossible to envision the GOP maintaining a congressional majority in the coming decade with a coalition centered on older white males.

One of the wonderful conceits of classic Hollywood cartoons was the quirk of gravity that allowed characters like Daffy Duck to step off a cliff with impunity — until they looked down. The Republicans, in their unswerving fidelity to the NRA, have gone over such a cliff. And pretty soon, they are going to realize their perilous, gravity-defying situation. When that happens sometime in the next few years, the politics of the gun issue are apt to dramatically change for the better.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.