Francis Wilkinson: The gun lobby appears invincible. It isn’t

Gun Rights

It’s easy to believe nothing has changed. It’s easy to believe that nothing even can change given the grip of gun culture on the US Supreme Court and the Republican Party. Republican politicians coast to coast have put themselves wholly at the service of the gun industry and the gun fanatics who enrich it. And the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has codified gun obsession with ever more tendentious opinions that shatter not only precedent and reason, but a good many human bodies, too.

Yet as we sort through last weekend’s gun massacre in Texas, and await the next gun massacre elsewhere, while taking in stride the gun murders, suicides and shootings too routine to merit public attention, it’s worth noting that the political landscape is far from static. The politics of gun violence are different today than they were a few years ago, both for better and for worse. It’s hard to imagine, for example, any Democratic senator voting, as four did just one decade ago, against a proposal for expanded background checks. It’s even harder to imagine such a vote in the wake of a massacre of children.

In essence, while gun fixation has taken over one party (and that’s bad), it has been run out of the other party (and that’s good). Polarization on guns has followed a track similar to polarization on other issues. But it also received a stiff shove from the National Rifle Association. Mark Pryor, then a Democratic senator from Arkansas, joined with Republicans in 2013 in opposing background checks on people who buy firearms online or at gun shows. The NRA rewarded Pryor’s cravenness with a seven-figure advertising buy supporting Pryor’s Republican opponent, who won. The NRA, once bipartisan, is now exclusively a GOP interest group, as are other militant gun organizations. Gun zealots have increased their power with Republicans. But they have lost allies elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the “gunsense” lobby is larger, better funded and more potent than at any time in history. It eagerly courts bipartisan allies, seeking to move Republicans incrementally when they can be moved at all. The most successful organizations lobbying for gun safety laws didn’t exist in the 20th century. (One of these organizations, Everytown for Gun Safety, is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.)

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States including California, Connecticut, Hawaii and Washington have strengthened their gun restrictions, from red flag laws to ammunition background checks to a ban on semi-automatic rifles. And the steady accumulation of academic research on gun violence has obliterated the gun lobby’s claims of social benefits flowing from widespread gun possession. A similar vein of research on the history of gun regulation would likely shame the Supreme Court if the court were capable of such reactions.

Gun violence is complicated. But our current mayhem is partly a result of the gun lobby getting its wish — a nation awash in guns, with red states providing virtually any violent, unhinged man with ready access to lethal arsenals. The gunman who murdered at least eight and injured seven last weekend in suburban Dallas reportedly bought guns from “private sellers.” In Texas, such sellers don’t need to conduct a basic background check before selling firearms to a homicidal Nazi.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott mumbled his traditional post-Texas-massacre remarks about “mental health.” It’s the default rhetoric of the pathetic and weak. (“We’re not going to fix it” is the manly, forthright response, although that truth wasn’t well received when a Republican congressman from Tennessee recently delivered it.)

The sick beauty of the gun industry’s business model is that it’s self-perpetuating. Gunmakers sell guns, which lead to more gun violence, which increases fear, which encourages people to buy more guns, which leads to more gun violence. If lawmakers don’t intervene, you can keep that cycle spinning for a long time before you bleed out a nation of 330 million.

Yet the gun-mad dystopia promoted by gun culture remains a nightmare vision to most Americans. A recent Fox News poll of registered voters shows giant majorities for a menu of gun regulations, including a ban on “assault weapons” and a 30-day waiting period to purchase firearms. Public opinion is unstable. But what the Fox poll shows is that Americans right now prefer Canadian gun laws to Texas gun laws.

Turning that public sentiment into a mass mobilization for life is the task at hand for the gun-safety movement. It will require new levels of public awareness, and political pressure, with the goal of isolating true-believing gun radicals from the “thoughts and prayers” cynics, opportunists and frauds who only pretend to be crazy.

With every massacre, guns are becoming a more defining issue. Either the US will institutionalize fear, turning public spaces into state garrisons to counter the threat from armed and dangerous men, or the US will bolster freedom by curtailing the forces of gun violence and intimidation. Something’s got to give: The status quo is increasingly untenable.

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Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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