Opinion: Which Republican will show Americas the way to gun sanity?

Gun Rights

“This is who we are now.”

We’ve heard that lament again and again in the three weeks since the blur of mass shootings that began three weeks ago in a Buffalo grocery store and is coming soon to a Sunday school classroom, nail salon or urgent care clinic near you.

The speaker might be a dispirited lawmaker whose latest proposal to ban assault rifles just died in committee, or a mom who turned to political activism after her first grader was executed. Or some big-city, seen-it-all police chief whose long law enforcement experience has only deepened his sense of despair.

All are expressing the sad conclusion that whatever we were once upon a time, the United States has become become a nation that values its guns more than its children — or at least a nation hat prioritizes the rights of gun owners above those of everyone else.

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This is who we are now.

It’s nonsense, of course. There is no silent majority resigned to the slaughter of innocents, no bipartisan consensus that the proliferation of mass shootings is simply the price we must pay to preserve our Second Amendment rights.

Not even the most deranged Second Amendment absolutists I know maintain that their right to bear arms is more important than any child’s life. What they argue is that new restrictions on firearm ownership restrict will do little or nothing to stem the epidemic of school shootings.

That is also nonsense, and a majority of Americans recognize it as such. The experience of other nations and communities demonstrates that restricting who may purchase guns, limiting the kind of guns and magazines they may buy, and requiring owners to secure their weapons can have a measurable impact on gun homicides and suicides. So why have our elected leaders failed to enact evidence-based initiatives that a majority of Americans support?

The answer lies not in who we are or what we’ve become, but in what we’ve always been: a country that provides determined political minorities with powerful tools to frustrate the will of the majority, even when the need for government action is urgent.

To overcome that obstacle will require the kind of leadership no Democrat can provide, and the kind of courage few Republican leaders have been able to muster.

Designed for paralysis

The United States is a nation founded on compromise. To secure the support of rural states who feared domination by their more populous northern neighbors, the men who wrote our constitution adopted a unique political arrangement: A House of Representatives in which big urban states wield more power than more sparsely populated rural ones, and a Senate in which every state is represented equally, with California’s 39 million residents getting the same number of seats (2) as Wyoming’s 600,000.

The scheme the framers devised to elect presidents — an Electoral College in which candidates who lose the popular vote can win (and have won, repeatedly) by capturing the electoral votes of less-populous states — gave southern and western states the same outsized clout in national elections. 

So when mostly-Republican senators from mostly-rural western and southern states reject gun regulations proposed by the Democratic president and Democratic House of Representatives, they’re not ignoring the will of the majority; they’re expressing the will of the electoral minority they represent.

And when 41 or more of those senators effectively preclude the federal government from doing anything to address gun violence, we’re watching America’s peculiar form of representative government do what it was expressly designed to do — which is not necessarily what the majority of voters want it to. 

In Michigan, a similar phenomenon stands in the way of more aggressive regulation at the state level.

Unlike its federal counterpart, the Michigan Senate apportions its seats by population, so that each of the 38 state senators represents roughly the same number of residents. But partisan redistricting schemes have given Republican voters disproportionate clout in state legislative elections for two decades, frequently yielding the same divided government — a GOP legislative majority at odds with a Democratic executive — that has stymied congressional action to stem gun violence..

Apples and Canadians

In the parliamentary form of government that prevails in most western democracies, by contrast, the party (or coalition) that controls the legislative majority tends to work hand in glove with the head of state the majority party has selected. So when the Canadian parliament rubber-stamps stringent gun control measures proposed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as it did last week, it’s not because the majority of Canadian lawmakers or voters are more sensible or decisive about gun violence than their American counterparts; it’s because Canada’s parliamentary government is designed to respond more quickly to what the majority of Canadians want, even when a significant minority wants something different.

Someday — maybe about the time climate change has turned eastern Michigan into oceanfront land — Americans may recognize the advantages of parliamentary-style democracy and jettison their own system, with all its anti-democratic trappings (divided government, the Senate filibuster, and popularly-rejected presidents, to name a few). 

In the meantime, enactment of any of the sensible gun control measures favored by the majority of American voters will depend on the degree to which skeptical voters in southern and western states can be persuaded that such measures are not designed to take their guns.

And that is a sales job cut out for — or rather, exclusively reserved for — a conservative Republican who commands those voters’ respect.

Biden and Pelosi need not apply

I’ve never understood how liberal Democrats became the tribunes for reasonable gun regulation. When I was growing up — in a conservative, working-class congressional district represented almost exclusively (at least in those days) by Republicans — it was Democrats who championed the unfettered exercise of most constitutional rights, and Republicans who harped on the solemn responsibilities that came with those rights. The younger you were, the more likely you were to receive one of those responsibilities-not-rights lectures. 

Nobody likes being lectured to, of course, especially when the lecturer is someone they distrust or despise. So we shouldn’t expect conservatives who reject everything else President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stand for to listen respectfully when they talk about regulating guns, however modest the ask. 

So what America (and Michigan) need is a respected Republican leader — one courageous example would likely inspire imitators — who can reframe the debate in terms conservatives can relate to.

A Nixon to China moment

If you were born after the war in Vietnam or the collapse of the Soviet Union, you probably can’t remember when opposition to communism was the gold standard by which Republican politicians were measured, or that Richard Nixon, who was elected president in 1968, owed his political success to his staunch anti-communist stance.

So in 1972, when Nixon became the first American president to visit the country his constituents then called Red China, his visit heralded an historic change in U.S. policy toward China’s communist regime. 

Historians have long regarded Nixon’s opening to China as both a diplomatic and political triumph, observing that only a Republican president with impeccable anti-communist credentials could have achieved that historic rapprochement without incurring the wrath of anti-communist conservatives at home.

There is a similar opportunity today for Republican elected leaders who’ve historically stood in the way of gun regulation measures to re-evaluate their own positions on this hot-button issue.

It’s not that difficult to reconcile expanded background checks, red-flag laws that deny firearms to people at obvious risk of self-harm, or restrictions on the sale of high-capacity magazines with conservative values. As conservative columnist Ross Douthat has observed, Republican proposals to weld most school entrances shut, equip napping kindergarteners with armored blankets and replace hall monitors with armed military retirees entail their own “sacrifice of liberty.”

Why can’t Republican leaders who have made liberty the core of their political identity make point out that reasonable restrictions on the sale, ownership and storage of semi-automatic weapons may expand, rather than constrict, the average Republican household’s sphere of freedom?

I won’t be so foolish as to suggest which Republican politician is best positioned to take up this challenge. I’ve seen too many leaders I considered impeccable standard bearers for conservative values — Wyoming Congressman Liz Cheney and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney are the most prominent examples — ostracized for lesser deviations from Republican orthodoxy.

In Michigan, the hard line all five Republican gubernatorial hopefuls have taken against any restrictions on gun owners betrays a consensus — undoubtedly correct — that no candidate who gets crosswise with the NRA can win a Republican primary in our state.

But general elections are another matter. And any gubernatorial or presidential candidate who hopes to carry Michigan in the next two election cycles will have to convince voters — and especially female voters — that Republicans are not implacably opposed to the gun control measures a majority of Americans want.

Brian Dickerson is the Editorial Page Editor of the Free Press. Contact him at bdickerson@freepress.com.

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