Losing On Gun Control

The most telling commentary on the Aurora massacre was actually created in 2011. Tom Tomorrow, in response to the recent tragedy in Colorado, reposted a “This Modern World” comic he had originally drawn in response to the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. The comic is brutally and nakedly truthful about the current politics of gun control. Sparky the Penguin, speaking to a nameless conservative, admits defeat:

Barring some seismic realignment in this country, the gun control debate is all but settled — and your side won. The occasional horrific civilian massacre is just the price the rest of us have to pay. Over and over again, apparently.

No matter where you stand on gun control, this is where the country stands politically — like it or not. Democrats learned, back in the 1990s, that they could get thrown out of office when they voted for new gun control laws. You can quibble over whether the assault weapons ban was the sole motivating factor for any individual lawmaker’s defeat, but in this case perception has become reality, at least in Democrats’ thinking. “Once burned, twice shy” is the party’s mantra now on gun control.

Gun control’s support varies in proportion to how urbanized an area is, roughly. People in large cities tend to support gun control, and rural populations tend to be strong Second Amendment supporters. Suburbs and small towns are usually somewhere in the middle of this range. This is admittedly an oversimplification, but it’s good enough for our purposes here.

Without getting in to the mechanics (or even the effectiveness) of any particular gun control measure, the hard cold political fact is that no new federal gun control law is going to be passed in the near future — or, for that matter, in the next few years. Even if Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, this basic truth would not change one bit. Not only is it currently an election year, but Democrats simply cannot put together enough House members from urban (or otherwise gun-control-supportive) districts that would add up to a majority vote.

Fears of Barack Obama “taking our guns away” reportedly led to a massive run on ammunition, during his first years in office. After all, Obama was supposedly the most leftist president of all time, so of course he was going to begin confiscating weapons — probably starting with the red states. This, quite obviously, has not come to pass. In fact, gun laws have actually been relaxed under Obama, as well as by Supreme Court decisions from the past decade or so. So no jack-booted federal agents will be coming for anybody’s guns in the foreseeable future.

There is a larger argument I’m all but ignoring, here — the gun control debate itself. Americans like to believe, in all tragedies of this type, that “something should have been done” beforehand. With perfect-vision hindsight, we all search for the “signs” that someone, somewhere “should have caught.” Pro-gun control folks like to believe that some law or another could easily have prevented such a tragedy from ever taking place. Anti-gun control folks like to believe that if someone had just been armed in the audience itself, that the guy could have been stopped.

Both views ignore the fact that, just perhaps, they might be wrong. Banning high-volume clips (or whatever other idea for a law) may not have stopped this guy from killing just as many people. It might have slightly inconvenienced the shooter, but then again nobody knows all the facts yet, so drawing such conclusions is premature, at best. From the other side, the guy was wearing body armour and could conceivably have outgunned anyone with a pistol at the ready, so it is impossible to accurately state that this would have changed the situation all that much.

Sometimes there are no easy answers. Sometimes Monday-morning quarterbacking is no real solution. The shooter had a clean background on both his past run-ins with the law and on his mental health — so any supposed miracle method of “reading the signs” beforehand would likely not have caught this particular guy before he did what he did. Sometimes the consoling thought that “somebody somewhere should have done something beforehand” is just not realistic, hard as that may be for many to accept.

This all may sound pretty defeatist, and I will admit that it largely is. Not only on proposed panaceas from all sides of the gun control (and mental health) debate, but also on the politics of the situation. Whether you agree with the concept or not, federal gun control is just not going to happen any time soon. That is the political reality in Washington, and across this country.

That’s not to say that people shouldn’t work for changes which they believe would improve American society. But what it does say is: “expect a long fight.” Because, for now, it’s a losing proposition. Here’s how the political equation stands: Democrats who want gun control must take the House, increase their proportion in the Senate, and regain the White House. But running on gun control is a losing issue in much of the country, because you have to win districts outside of urban areas to control Congress, and rural Democrats often lose when they support gun control (or, at least, so says the conventional wisdom of the times). So if Democrats made gun control a central part of their campaign, they might actually lose seats in the House. There doesn’t seem to be a way out of this conundrum for the Democratic Party. To get enough power to enact gun control, Democrats must not run on their support for gun control. Catch-22.

Changing the public’s mind is the only real option, but the news for the gun control advocates on this front is not good. In the 1990s, support among the general public was actually quite high for gun control. It no longer is — like many political issues these days, the public is about evenly split on the question. So the gun control advocates have a long and hard road to travel to build public pressure to the point where Democrats (even in rural areas) think they can win on the issue at the polls.

For now, though, it is seen as a big losing issue for Democratic politicians. Viewed through the lens of political reality, Tom Tomorrow’s acidly cynical comic is the most intelligent thing I’ve heard said on the Colorado shooting. Gun control advocates, at least for now, have lost. The other side has won. Horrific civilian massacres will indeed continue. It’s as true today as it was when Gabrielle Giffords was shot.


Chris Weigant blogs at:


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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