Even after Newtown, the pro-reform Left runs out of gas on guns.
On June 24 I had the pleasure of attending a public discussion on guns featuring Governor Dannel Malloy of Connecticut. John Feinblatt, senior advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the man behind the curtain at Mayors Against Illegal Guns, was his sidekick. Though both men demonstrated their copious passion and knowledge of the issues and hurdles facing gun reform, their words inspired a disappointingly hollow confidence—a sense of fighting the good fight without an appraisal of the likelihood of progress.
The CUNY Macaulay Honors College provided an intimate setting that facilitated an oral memoir-style opening from Malloy, in which he discussed his background in criminal justice and his thought processes during and after the mass school shooting in Newtown this past December. Malloy made simple, clear transitions from the grief he felt immediately after the tragedy to the work he felt must follow it. The two men traded knowing glances that belied the depth of their speech. Malloy’s responses to Feinblatt’s prodding often went a bit deeper into the weeds than Feinblatt seemingly intended. The latter did a good job extracting the policy fundamentals from Malloy’s more abstract monologues. For example, when Malloy mentioned the frustration of the failed Manchin-Toomey federal reform bill, Feinblatt got him to express clear criticism of the primary election system that allows extreme policy to trump public desire.
There was nothing new in what either man said on stage tonight. However, the strength of the discussion was the governor’s formulation of a clear three-pronged strategy for federal-level reform. First came universal background checks, against which there is no sane argument. Second, Malloy pointed to the need for “enforceable” federal trafficking laws. The third component of his plan was a ban on straw purchases—the ridiculous practice of buying a gun for someone else and selling or giving it to them. These three, he said, are all of the reforms that could and should be expected of the U.S. government. The rest is best left for the states to decide, Malloy believes.
One must understand him, then, as saying that appropriate legislation on mental illness should be a state-by-state concern. This is an understandable tack coming from a politician seeking achievable ends. However, the kinds of large-scale changes Malloy named—acceptance of alcoholism or drug use as a mental illness, or of periodic mood disorders as a grounds for denying gun rights, or unraveling our culture’s glorification of violence—will need to cross state lines. These are societal-level issues that require time and coordinated policies. Malloy spoke of school-based programs to help teachers recognize mental illness in young students and help students deal with bullying. Connecticut’s plan is certainly comprehensive and a welcome model.
Still, for all the insight and commitment to reform that Malloy and Feinblatt displayed, the event left a sour aftertaste. For example: what, exactly, is an “enforceable” federal law? Is it one that precludes Congress from issuing thesuffocating budget riders that prevent the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) from doing its job? Is it a new piece of legislation altogether? This question went unanswered, unfortunately.
This example encapsulates the problem the pro-reform movement. For all of the factual and commonsense issues gun control advocates stack up, there is still a thick fog surrounding both the means and ends of advocacy. Feinblatt asked whether the Left simply lacks the energy of their status quo-favoring opponents. There isn’t a clear answer to that question. The movement suffers from too little and too inconsistent funding; a scattering of energy among narrowly focused advocates; little consensus on actionable next steps; and a political system that rewards extreme partisanship.
Reform advocates know how to speak passionately about the problems guns cause, but are already a step behind framing the debate. They can compile mountains of facts, but the gun rights crowd stokes overwhelming fear with untruths. Malloy’s talk was moving and convincing, but he didn’t need to convince anyone in the crowd tonight. His points didn’t feel stale; they felt undercooked. And I suppose that in the long-term sense, that’s where the greatest fuel for optimism lies.
Note: this article appeared on Medium on June 24, 2013.