In the town hall-style presidential debate, Mitt Romney claimed it is “illegal in this country to have automatic weapons.” Neither candidate made a claim farther from the truth all night. It is very much legal to own automatic weapons—both semi- and fully automatic— and their ammunition, much like the arsenal that murdered moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado this summer.
What Romney’s statement and the absence of any challenge to it by President Barack Obama demonstrate is a crystallization of America’s gun control dilemma. America utterly lacks the interest and capacity for a national conversation about guns, let alone for progressive reform.
A staggering number of Americans believe falsehoods about our federal and state gun laws: a July 2012 survey by conservative consultant and strategist Frank Luntz showed that Americans are largely ignorant of just how easy it is to acquire a gun.
In fact, Luntz’s research shows that most members of the National Rifle Association take far more moderate stances than the organization does. These differences include the belief that restricting access to guns does not contradict the Second Amendment, as well as specific policies like alerts to police regarding gun theft; background checks for every individual; age restrictions on concealed-carry permits; or bans on concealed-carry permits for domestic violence offenders. The NRA opposes these reasonable reforms on the basis of the slippery slope principle: embracing these changes would lead to the total outlaw of guns in America.
The NRA’s strategy works. A National Journal poll of members of Congress this summer revealed that representatives on both sides of the aisle believe the NRA has massive influence. One Democrat sighed, “They ‘own’ Congress.” A Republican recognized the strength of the agency’s policy to harness rural support with this more nuanced take: “Given the NRA largely ignores many of the nation’s urban centers, their influence is concentrated and significant.”
Despite the claim by some anti-gun advocates that the NRA is stifling democracy, a more sober view suggests that the association is simply better at conveying its message. Representative Barney Frank made this analysis as long ago as 1999: “The NRA does the best job of any group in lobbying members [of Congress]. They don’t have marches, they don’t have demonstrations, they don’t shoot their guns in the air. It’s just good, straight democracy.” The NRA simply faces no comparably organized opposition.
Why, then, is change not around the corner? Singling out the influence of one organization is not sufficient. Democrats have played defense on guns since 2000, when Al Gore made gun control a major plank of his presidential campaign, only to back down in the face of criticism as a hypocrite (for opposing reform while representing Tennessee in the Senate) and the realization that Americans did not match his passion on the issue (sound familiar?). This political miscarriage opened the door as Democrats retreated, and the landscape has not changed in over a decade.
Congress does its part to reinforce the status quo. Through riders on appropriations bills, conservative leaders hamstring the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to the point of impotence. Partisan rivalry has also prevented the confirmation of a permanent ATF director since 2002, when the Homeland Security Act moved the agency to the Department of Justice from the Treasury. Tracking by the Congressional Research Service shows that the vast majority of bills in Congress during this period have proposed weakening our gun laws. To even bring a progressive reform out of committee is considered a major victory by the handful of anti-gun members who still hold office.
Progressive advocates do exist. The Brady Center—named for the Reagan aide permanently disabled in the 1981 assassination attempt who founded the group—does admirable work to promote awareness of the dangers of guns. Various institutes, like the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, also fight battles for the constitutionality of our gun laws. If our current laws are not enough to prevent shootings around the country, weakening them will only further deteriorate public safety. These advocates do necessary work that too often goes unheralded.
The bottom line is that Americans do not care enough about gun violence to make progressive change happen. Our memories are short, even for tragedies like the recent shootings in Aurora, Oak Creek, and now Brookfield. Until we reach a critical mass of interest in reform, progressives will be fighting a steep uphill battle. That, in itself, is a tragedy.
Note: this article appeared in The Wagner Review on October 27, 2012.