To Get Better Gun Control, Don’t Use the Phrase
We can now be confident that last week’s massacre of 26 women and children at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, will not be swept under the carpet like so many mass shootings of the past.
President Barack Obama said Dec. 19 that he would act “without delay” after hearing from Vice President Joe Biden’s task force in January. We’ll probably spend much of the winter and spring debating Obama’s anti-violence proposal.
The question now is what the president -- and the rest of us -- can do to make sure that the National Rifle Association doesn’t once again intimidate enough members of Congress to gut the bill. The only answer is to build a smarter, more effective movement for common-sense gun laws than we have today, which means lots of meetings, marches, TV ads, door knocks and social- media campaigns.
Only the technology of movement-building has changed. Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, conservation -- every great stride forward in U.S. history has come from ordinary people defying the odds and bringing organized pressure to bear on politicians.
Any movement starts with its core legislative agenda. In this case, that means:
-- Banning all assault weapons and high-capacity magazines for everyone except the military.
-- Requiring instant background checks on all gun purchases, including those at gun shows and online.
-- Providing law enforcement full access to all state and local databases on felons and the mentally ill.
-- Making illegal gun trafficking a felony.
Until now, the NRA has disgraced itself by blocking each of these no-brainer reforms, mostly by putting tens of millions of dollars behind its lies. The best thing Obama did in his news conference was his attempt to drive a wedge between NRA members, most of whom favor reasonable gun-safety laws, and their hard- line officers and board of directors.
With the NRA’s news conference on Dec. 21, we’re about to see if its tardy response to the Newtown shootings plays with the public. I have my doubts. Once a bully is exposed in harsh daylight, it can be harder to instill fear again.
To break the NRA’s stranglehold, reformers need to shake off the hangdog fatalism of the past. Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell often points out that he won three statewide elections against the gun lobby in a state that is second only to Texas in NRA membership.
Democrats are too worried about senators from Alaska, Arkansas, Montana, Louisiana and West Virginia up for re- election in 2014. Even if many rural counties are out of reach, dozens of others in suburban areas are full of moderate and compassionate people who have not been approached imaginatively on the gun issue.
Doing so requires reframing the debate with new language, always an essential weapon in politics. That means retiring “gun control” (the “control” part is threatening to gun owners) and replacing it with “gun safety,” “anti-violence regulation,” “military weapons for the military only” and -- on every occasion -- “common sense.”
Mom-and-apple-pie appeals always work best. So far, with anti-gun groups starved for money, they haven’t been widely tried.
In the meantime, liberals need to downplay accurate but politically useless arguments. It’s true that violent video games don’t cause shooting rampages, that state laws allowing concealed weapons are a menace, and that guns in the home are more likely to be used in an accidental shooting than to protect against burglars. But emphasizing these points just exacerbates cultural differences and does nothing to advance next year’s legislation.
What would? The most heartening remarks of the week came from people such as West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who was elected in 2010 with an ad featuring him firing a gun. Now he believes it’s time to rethink some positions. A couple of country stars on his side (hello, Toby Keith) would help. So would anti-violence super-PACs (yet to be formed) airing attack ads in suburban media markets that thrust the NRA on the defensive, where it has never been.
The NRA spent more than $11 million on behalf of candidates in the 2012 cycle, a relatively small sum by today’s standards. Let’s see what happens when it has to respond to a heavy ad barrage next year that includes families talking about their dead children.
The president’s role -- better late than never -- is to mobilize his base. His 2012 grass-roots political organization, the best ever built, raised more than $1 billion, amassed more than 15 million e-mail addresses, contacted tens of millions of voters and recruited a million volunteers in battleground states.
Now the Obama team has the passionate issue it needs to target and organize crucial suburban congressional districts. If all House Democrats vote for the landmark bill next spring -- a reasonable supposition -- Obama would need the support of 17 House Republicans for it to pass.
The only thing they or other members care about is their own political survival. So the question for them is this: What’s the use of a 100 percent NRA rating in the Republican primary if it’s going to doom you in the general?
I know, I know. This sounds like a fantasy. The gun lobby likes to point to the elections of 1994 and 2000, when several Democrats who backed the assault-weapons ban lost their seats. No federal gun laws have been passed since. New ones at the state level have all been for the worse.
But U.S. politics is in a state of transition. Obama won a solid majority in November. His army -- not the NRA’s -- is the one that’s on the march. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was so unspeakable that it may yet help a whole new generation of political activists to find their voice.
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Alter firstname.lastname@example.org.