America’s debate over guns has gotten so stale that a secondary argument over “thoughts and prayers” had to break out to keep it interesting. On one side, there are largely law-abiding firearms owners, frequently immersed to some extent in gun culture, who fear being disarmed in response to crimes mostly being committed by other people. On the other side are people who largely lack familiarity with guns who don’t see why certain weapons are necessary for civilian use or how mild restrictions would really disarm or even inconvenience anybody in the first group.
The two camps have largely talked past each other, using the same set of arguments, for decades. When the predominantly gun-free suburbs were the important swing vote in national elections, the gun controllers had the upper hand (that’s how the Brady bill and the since-expired assault weapons ban in the 1990s came about). When the battleground states were more gun-friendly, Second Amendment activists regained the advantage (that’s why Democrats quietly shelved this issue for most of the 2000s).
Mass shootings threaten to break this stalemate. It’s no longer just about reducing the supply of guns in rural areas that could illegally flow to already gun-controlled urban areas to promote public safety in the nearby suburbs. Tragic events like El Paso or Dayton can happen anywhere to anyone, with many of the highest profile incidents occurring in schools. Their randomness can cause data otherwise showing a decline in violent crime to fade into irrelevance. At some point, though perhaps not right now, the frustration will boil over into action.
The gun controllers will regain the upper hand, especially as the suburbs shift their allegiance from Republicans to Democrats, partially over this very issue. Then one of two things could happen to cause the pendulum to swing back in the other direction: 1. The “commonsense” gun reforms that nearly everyone agrees on — enhanced background checks, bans on certain types of weapons viewed as especially conducive to mass shootings, bump stock regulations, improved mental health screenings, “red flag” laws — don’t have their desired effect on these types of crimes; 2. The gun controllers overreach.
The second outcome could be a byproduct of the first. There has always been a disconnect between what gun control activists consider the root cause of gun violence — the vast number of firearms in America compared to Europe — and the solutions they propose. Background checks and waiting periods are politically viable, but they don’t really match the diagnosis about our country’s gun supply.
Progressive writers and, increasingly, even politicians talk about gun buy-back programs, invoking Australia as an example. The odds that this policy can be successfully, voluntarily replicated in the United States are low, partly because the gun ownership rate is so much higher here than there. So that could lead to policies that really will impact law-abiding gun owners, with unpredictable political results.
Even closing the so-called gun show loophole will make private weapons sales or transfers less convenient, but most voters appear to believe this is worth the cost if it stops even one shooting. Reducing the number of guns in the United States will require more aggressive methods of taking guns from their lawful owners, contemplating policies that are a lot more radical — and more consistent with the fears stoked by pro-gun groups — than anything that has ever seriously been considered at the national level in the past.
Large-scale gun confiscation would raise Fourth Amendment concerns as well as Second Amendment ones. There are also huge practicality issues that have yet to be discussed. Even its proponents concede it is unlikely to happen. But it will be talked about. And even rhetorically attacking gun ownership as a rational decision without seriously pursuing these policies will trigger a serious political backlash. What then?
Maybe nothing, if progressive hopes that the Democratic coalition will soon be big and liberal enough not to have to make accommodations to the disproportionately red-state gun owners come to fruition. But there’s no guarantee this is true. This kind of triumphalism has backfired before. Republicans were once on the defensive about the assault weapons ban, for instance, but the politics changed to the extent that the law was allowed to lapse largely without incident. The demographics of gun ownership could also change to include more Democratic voters — it is already rising among African Americans. Even Bernie Sanders has to listen to his gun-owning constituents.
Frustrating, but in a tragic sense fitting. The gun control debate has always been part of the culture war and its conflicting visions of America, as much as an argument about firearms and public safety. And our politicians do culture warring much better than governing.