Roger Ebert goes full despair over the depressing unlikelihood that a single aspect of our gun laws will change as a result of the Aurora shootings, while E.J. Dionne gives an excellent rundown of the exact ways the NRA will deflect even the most basic charges against gun ownership. Both are protesting more in sorrow than anger; neither thinks anything will be accomplished (and neither do I, frankly; what follows is less an actual theory than thinking aloud).
But! Buried way below the lede of the Dionne’s piece is this:
Sure, there are some dissenters. Many of the nation’s mayors, led by Mike Bloomberg of New York and Tom Menino of Boston, have tried to organize a push for carefully tailored laws aimed at keeping guns out of the wrong hands. But they are the exceptions. President Obama has done little to challenge the NRA, and yet it attacks him anyway.
Catch that last part? Since before even taking office, Obama has the NRA’s enemy #1. The NRA even set up a website called GunBanObama.com, which warned that Obama would be “the most anti-gun president in history.” In response, guns sales skyrocketed in the months leading up to Obama’s inauguration—by 60% in some states—despite the fact that nobody in their right mind thought Obama would go anywhere near gun control.
And he didn’t: in fact, Obama has actually loosened gun laws while in office. To deal with the cognitive dissonance that was destined to result from Obama doing the opposite of what the NRA warned everybody he would do, the organization pulled the classic cognitive dissonance move and doubled down: Obama, according to the NRA, will be in his second term what they feared from his first. NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre recently warned of a “conspiracy to ensure re-election by lulling gun owners to sleep.” Conspiracy is his word, not mine, but it’s a necessary one: the amount of statergery necessary to maintain a pro-gun first administration only to mollify enemies in order to sneak attack them in the second is worthy of parody, and has already received it. Yet, in one of the only instances in the past four years in which Romney has spoken unequivocally about something, he endorsed this nonsense:
Mitt Romney drew a warm reception from the National Rifle Assn. on Friday as he attacked President Obama for “employing every imaginable ruse and ploy” to restrict gun rights, which Romney pledged not to do if elected in November…“In a second term, he would be unrestrained by the demands of re-election,” Romney told a crowd estimated at 6,000 in the cavernous Edward Jones Dome. “As he told the Russian president last month when he thought no one else was listening, after a re-election he’ll have a lot more, quote, ‘flexibility’ to do what he wants. I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that, but looking at his first three years, I have a very good idea.”
Long crazy short: the NRA already thinks Obama’s going to go for gun control in his second term; they’re already mobilizing their base over this theory; they’re already supporting some candidates and attacking others under this theory. The political landscape, for all intents and purposes, is currently operating under the assumption that Barack Obama will go nuts on gun restrictions in t-minus six months. Which raises the question: what exactly do Obama and the Democrats have to lose by not going after gun control?
Obama’s presided over a lot of mass shootings. Fort Hood, Tucson, Chadron, Seal Beach, now Aurora, to name just the ones off the top of my head, for a total of 42 dead and 114 wounded. That’s 1.25 major mass shootings per year of his presidency, minimum, and Aurora now counts as the biggest shooting in American history. And these are just the mega shootings, to say nothing of the thousands of gun deaths a year as a result of run-of-the-mill crime, accidents, or stupidity. The Brady Campaign’s list of mass shootings under Obama’s administration is 41 pages long. The most recent shooting listed happened in Tulsa, OK, with 17 people injured. It occurred three days ago.
Doesn’t a president who loosened gun restrictions at some point bear some responsibility for the gun deaths under his tenure? Obama’s gotten a complete pass on gun deaths 2009-present for a variety of legitimate reasons—one being, yes, that the executive has little actual control over gun laws, which are congressional and state affairs—paramount of which is that the gun control argument is presumed so lost that nobody believes he could do anything about it if he wanted to.
That was then. We’ve suffered a lot of shootings since 2009. There may be a bigger stomach for gun restrictions now than there was in 2009. There’s the fact that the Aurora shooter’s guns were all purchased legally, driving home that our laws really are enabling the preparations of these shooters. And, perhaps most important, there’s the fact that, unlike the Fort Hood shooting, which was largely marginalized as a intra-military event, and the Tucson shooting, which was seen, rightly or wrongly, as political act, the Aurora shooting was a populist affair: we all go to the movies, and most of us are going to see The Dark Knight Rises. The Aurora shooting, more than any others recently, is reminiscent of the Oklahoma City Bombing in its “it can happen anywhere” quality.
That quality may make the real consequences of gun violence felt more palpably across the general populace. This is no longer a school campus issue, or a military problem, or an issue of political rhetoric. Regardless of what James Holmes’s motivations turn out to be, movie theaters—a “home” of a “joyful pastime” in Christopher Nolan’s inadequate words—have been weaponized, legally, and with the full support of the NRA, whose “guns don’t kill people” argument now has to contend with the fact that James Holmes would have shot approximately 1/15 of those people without an AK-47-type firearm.
Consider also that, assuming Obama is reelected and the Democrats hold on to the Senate, early 2013 will be the furthest removed from electoral politics as one could get; if there’s a time to test the waters on gun control, that’s it. Here’s Dionne on the sub-presidential politics:
There are many reasons for this politics of timidity, not the least being a United States Senate that vastly overrepresents rural voters relative to suburban and urban voters. (The electoral college overrepresents rural voters, too.) Add to this a Republican Party that will bow low before any anti-government argument that comes along, and a Democratic Party petrified of losing more rural support — and without any confidence that advocates of tougher gun laws will cast ballots on the basis of this issue.
I don’t know well enough the specifics of gun control at the district level to tell if Dionne is simplifying this; I imagine gun politics are more complicated and influential than “a rural side issue.” It’s true that gun rights barely registers as an issue voters care about in 2012 polls, but that may be because the NRA has so effectively neutralized it as a political issue; it might also be because the economy is overwhelming. But in 2013, electoral politics will still be 1.5 years away. Yes, the NRA and plenty of money and will to remind voters in October of 2014 how a Democratic legislator voted on gun control in January 2013. But if Dionne is right, and the NRA has maxed out the marginal utility of people who vote on gun issues, the Democrats might not actually suffer very much from a vote on gun restrictions.
All of which is to say that the NRA may have overplayed its hand the past few years. The organization has potentially hit the ceiling of its electoral support; a scared gun owner can purchase multiple weapons out of fear, but he can only vote once. And since the NRA is acting as if Obama has already passed the restrictions he hasn’t even proposed, they may have given him an opening to become the exact type of gun control proponent they have spent so much time convincing people he is. If the political landscape in 2013 is one in which 100% of the NRA’s members are already 100% against Obama, he has nothing to gain in catering to them. Rather than prod Obama with reasons to continue to appease their lobby, they’ve granted him every excuse to ignore them completely.
The variable that’s left is whether the public is fed up enough with mass shootings that they’re willing to entertain some modest gun restrictions without freaking out about tyranny and the rest—in short, without being susceptible to the NRA’s yelling <paranoid>Second Amendment</paranoid> on every street corner. In this sense, Dionne’s and Ebert’s articles are good starts. The more people speak out about not only the sorrow of the tragedy but its agonizing preventability—the fact that it didn’t need to have happened if only we were slightly smarter and more cautious about firearms—the more gun control becomes a reasonable response rather than a pipe dream. If this line is repeated as much as cries of “Second Amendment” are, we might return this issue to the realm of debate.
It’s a long shot, but it’s just possible that January 2013 could see the exact intersection of public support, electoral willpower, and NRA impotence that makes the revival of gun control a reality.
Addendum: Neat, depressing fact: gun sales have grown so much under Obama’s administration that when Perry was in the lead of the GOP primary, some gun manufacturers began to fret that Mr. I Shoot Wolves While Jogging would actually be bad for business.