How political pessimism helps doom tougher gun laws

It’s predictable after every new mass-shooting horror: The political right’s reflexive call for “thoughts and prayers,” which is then mocked by people who favor more gun restrictions for lacking any accompanying ideas for preventing future killings. But there’s an equally predictable refrain on the center-left and in the media, too: “Once again, nothing will be […]

How political pessimism helps doom tougher gun laws

It’s predictable after every new mass-shooting horror: The political right’s reflexive call for “thoughts and prayers,” which is then mocked by people who favor more gun restrictions for lacking any accompanying ideas for preventing future killings.

But there’s an equally predictable refrain on the center-left and in the media, too: “Once again, nothing will be done.”

Barely had the death toll of 17 been announced last week after the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida than The Washington Post declared, “The gun debate is going nowhere quickly after Parkland.” CNN offered: “Amid continued string of mass shootings, gun control going nowhere in Congress.” After 59 concert-goers were mowed down in October, former Democratic congressman Steve Israel put to rest any hope for reform in a New York Times op-ed column titled “Nothing Will Change After the Las Vegas Shooting.”

This fatalism is borne of hard-won experience. Congress has failed repeatedly to pass any gun-control measures after past calamities, even the 2012 massacre of 20 first-graders and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.Yet this world-weary defeatism is self-fulfilling in its own way, and helps explain why Washington hasn’t taken action to address the killing.

For one thing, such pessimism demoralizes, and dismisses, those who are motivated to fight against gun violence, such as the network of angry moms that sprung up after the Sandy Hook massacre and the organization led by former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, which have managed to achieve a series of state-level successes even as reform stalls at the national level.

For another thing, it lets off the hook those who are opposed to stronger gun laws. Declaring preemptively that any new effort at gun-law reform is doomed spares opponents from even having to make their arguments for protecting the gun lobby.

Most importantly, liberal fatalism on gun control overstates the strength of the opposition. The National Rifle Association’s influence depends heavily on the perception of its power. By building up the gun lobby as an indomitable force, pessimists are playing directly into its hands.

No doubt, the NRA is influential. Not so much because of the campaign contributions it makes to candidates, but because it can count on an energized grass-roots base of gun-rights supporters to turn out at the polls and badger elected officials with calls and emails. But that influence has limits, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that it is on the wane.

For one thing, the proportion of Americans with guns has been steadily declining, to its lowest level in decades, though there are recent signs that the decline has leveled off. (The reason why the number of guns continues to rise despite this demographic trend is that the remaining gun owners are buying more and more weapons.) Meanwhile, gun ownership is growing more heavily clustered in certain states. That limits the voting power of the gun lobby.

For another thing, the aforementioned notorious failure, to pass background checks following the Sandy Hook massacre, was a closer call than many people realized. It got 55 Senate votes, just five short of a filibuster-proof 60. Six senators with A ratings from the NRA voted for it. It would still have had to get through the GOP-controlled House, but that was not out of the question: there would have been tremendous pressure from Sandy Hook families on then-Speaker John Boehner to hold a vote, and unlike in the Senate, it would have required only a majority, which meant getting fewer than 20 Republicans to vote for it.

And consider what happened after that vote. Two of the four red-state Democrats who voted no, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor and Alaska’s Mark Begich, got zero NRA back-up in return for that vote and lost re-election in 2014, proving to other centrist Democrats that there’s no point in currying NRA favor. It’s hard to tell now, with Republicans in control of Washington, but the NRA’s decision to become a purely partisan organization, after years of courting Democrats as well, could come back to haunt it in the near future.

Meanwhile, one of the purple-state Republicans who voted no, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, lost in 2016 in a race in which the pro-gun-law groups went after her hard for that vote. No longer is voting with the NRA the obvious safe tack for a self-interested politician.

There are other signs that the political winds are shifting on the issue. In Virginia, the NRA’s home state, Ralph Northam was elected governor by a wide margin despite his F rating from the NRA and outspoken calls for tougher laws, following in the footsteps of Terry McAuliffe and Tim Kaine, who both also won statewide election despite their staunch anti-NRA stance.

Meanwhile, the empirical case for reducing gun violence through tougher restrictions has been growing stronger, providing counter to the oft-heard claims that “laws wouldn’t make a difference anyway.” Missouri has seen a sharp rise in shooting deaths after eliminating in-person background checks for gun purchases. Connecticut, on the other hand, has seen a sharp decline in shooting deaths after it instituted stringent gun-permitting requirements following Sandy Hook.

Of course, with Republicans now in control of Congress and the White House, the odds are stacked against federal legislation. But that’s the case with plenty other issues that liberals still see reason to keep pushing forward on at all levels of government, from health care to climate change to the minimum wage, even if momentary prospects are not bright.

Bottom line, the widespread fatalism on guns is self-fulfilling. It inflates the power of the opposition, undermines activists, and gives off the air of defeat, never a good thing in a country that prizes winners.

But now a new generation may be showing a different way. A remarkable wave of student outrage and activism is spreading from Parkland, serving as a rebuke not only to conservatives who have blocked gun-law reform, but also to liberals who had given up the fight.

“When we’ve had our say with the government — and maybe the adults have gotten used to saying ‘it is what it is,’ but if us students have learned anything, it’s that if you don’t study, you will fail,” declared Emma Gonzalez, a Parkland student, in a speech that has gone viral on the Internet. “And in this case if you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead, so it’s time to start doing something.”

Such youthful determination will run up against plenty of hard realities. But in this she is right: The worst odds of all lie in declaring any effort hopeless.

 

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

 

We're ad free

That means that we rely on support from readers like you. Help us keep reporting on the most important New Mexico Stories by donating today.

Related

Both Republicans and Democrats skeptical of guv’s proposals for special session

Both Republicans and Democrats skeptical of guv’s proposals for special session

A representative from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office outlined on Thursday the bills the governor’s office will back during the upcoming special session, but…
Senators throw support to embattled Ivey-Soto

Senators throw support to embattled Ivey-Soto

By Justin Horwath, New Mexico In Dept Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto is running for a fourth term despite the state Democratic Party’s decision to censure…
AG announces legislative priorities for upcoming special session

AG announces legislative priorities for upcoming special session

Attorney General Raúl Torrez announced on Thursday his legislative priorities for July’s special legislative session, including the creation of a crime victim’s unit to…
PNM seeks rate increase

PNM seeks rate increase

Customers of New Mexico’s largest electric utility may pay more for energy in the future. The Public Service Company of New Mexico filed an…
DOE announces funding to help bring technologies to market

DOE announces funding to help bring technologies to market

National laboratories across the country, including Sandia National Laboratories, will use millions of dollars in federal funding to spur the deployment of projects related…
LANL plans to release highly radioactive tritium to prevent explosions. Will it just release danger in the air?

LANL plans to release highly radioactive tritium to prevent explosions. Will it just release danger in the air?

By Alicia Inez Guzmán, Searchlight New Mexico Last fall, the international community rose up in defense of the Pacific Ocean. Seafood and salt purveyors,…
Stansbury outlines funding secured for early childhood and youth services programs

Stansbury outlines funding secured for early childhood and youth services programs

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury secured $8.3 million for childhood development and youth services in the 1st congressional district through federal community project funding. Stansbury,…
Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican The main things that bring Brayan Chavez to school every day: Seeing, talking to and engaging with…
Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican Brittany Behenna Griffith has a laundry list of adjectives to describe the ideal special education teacher:…
Heinrich questions FDA leadership on baby formula safety, mifepristone

Heinrich questions FDA leadership on baby formula safety, mifepristone

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf answered questions about the safety of human milk formula and mifepristone on Wednesday. Sen. Martin…
Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Amy Maxmen, KFF Health News Four years after hospitals in New York City overflowed with covid-19 patients, emergency physician Sonya Stokes remains shaken by…
Lujan Grisham, Biden admin announce $10 million in federal funds for tribes, pueblos

Lujan Grisham, Biden admin announce $10 million in federal funds for tribes, pueblos

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Friday $10 million in funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act was awarded to six tribal nations and…
Abortion medication access remains after Supreme Court ruling

Abortion medication access remains after Supreme Court ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Texas-based Christian group trying to restrict access to abortion medication on Thursday. The case, FDA v. the…
How abortion care has changed since Dobbs 

How abortion care has changed since Dobbs 

In the month of March 2024 alone, 1,650 clinician-provided abortions took place in New Mexico, according to the reproductive research organization, the Guttmacher Institute.…
Many Democrats endorsed by reproductive rights group won primaries

Many Democrats endorsed by reproductive rights group won primaries

With nearly 53 percent of the precincts reporting as of 11 p.m. Tuesday, most of the legislative candidates endorsed by Planned Parenthood Votes New…
New Mexico food banks say food insecurity is on the rise

New Mexico food banks say food insecurity is on the rise

Food insecurity is on the rise as state benefits have decreased and the future of federal benefits have an uncertain future.  Sonya Warwick, director…
Abortion medication access remains after Supreme Court ruling

Abortion medication access remains after Supreme Court ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Texas-based Christian group trying to restrict access to abortion medication on Thursday. The case, FDA v. the…
How abortion care has changed since Dobbs 

How abortion care has changed since Dobbs 

In the month of March 2024 alone, 1,650 clinician-provided abortions took place in New Mexico, according to the reproductive research organization, the Guttmacher Institute.…
Post-primary, Biden leads Trump in NM

Post-primary, Biden leads Trump in NM

President Joe Biden leads former president Donald Trump in the race for New Mexico’s five electoral seats, according to a poll commissioned by NM…
Democrats announce spending on CD2 race

Democrats announce spending on CD2 race

The Democratic National Committee announced on Monday that it will spend $70,000 for organizing staff to aid U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez, the Democrat trying…
Handful of legislators lose primaries

Handful of legislators lose primaries

Every legislative seat is up for grabs in 2024, which means all incumbents who sought reelection had to face the voters. Most did not…
Post-primary, Biden leads Trump in NM

Post-primary, Biden leads Trump in NM

President Joe Biden leads former president Donald Trump in the race for New Mexico’s five electoral seats, according to a poll commissioned by NM…
New Mexico food banks say food insecurity is on the rise

New Mexico food banks say food insecurity is on the rise

Food insecurity is on the rise as state benefits have decreased and the future of federal benefits have an uncertain future.  Sonya Warwick, director…
Abortion medication access remains after Supreme Court ruling

Abortion medication access remains after Supreme Court ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Texas-based Christian group trying to restrict access to abortion medication on Thursday. The case, FDA v. the…

GET INVOLVED

© 2023 New Mexico Political Report