Guns and Gut Feelings

AP Images/Jacquelyn Martin

“It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different.”

—Barack Obama, February 12, 2013, State of the Union Address

“We need everyone to remember how we felt 100 days ago and make sure that what we said at that time wasn’t just a bunch of platitudes–that we meant it.”

—Barack Obama, March 28, 2013

Sometimes in politics, good intentions are not enough. Even though the president often radiates all the passion of some-assembly-required instructions from Ikea, the dead children at Sandy Hook Elementary School obviously scarred Obama’s soul. But nearly seven months after Newtown, perhaps we should sadly conclude that this time is not different and that the president accomplished little that is lasting with his intense advocacy of gun control.

Yes, I know this pessimism runs against the liberal wish to believe that a few more months, a few more petitions and protests, a few more Michael Bloomberg-funded TV ads will bring the Senate to its senses so that it will pass background-check legislation. After all, it was just little more than a month ago that The New Republic, in a cover story by its adroit political correspondent Alec MacGillis, proclaimed in a headline, “A Bigger, Richer, Meaner Gun-Control Movement Has Arrived."

No one has worked harder on gun control since Newtown than Connecticut’s two Democratic senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy. But interviews with both of them as Congress moved into its holiday recess did little to lift the gloom that came with the Senate’s failure in mid-April to break an NRA-backed filibuster against expanded background checks.

“I would not put our chances as better than 50-50 that we could get a bill back on the Senate floor,” said Murphy. “But I don’t think I’d put our chances under 25 percent. This issue hasn’t gone away and it’s our side that is getting its political sea legs.”

The arithmetic in the Senate, where gun-control advocates were stymied by five votes, remains daunting. Most of the chamber's naysayers can resist short-term political pressure because they are not on the ballot in 2014. Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly toured seven states on behalf of gun legislation last week, but only visited one state (Alaska) where a senator who voted no (Mark Begich) will face the voters next year.

Moreover, Democrats lost a Senate vote with the death of New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg—and his temporary GOP replacement, Jeff Chiesa, answered a question from the Philadelphia Inquirer on background checks last month by saying that he opposes “any additional undue burdens on legal gun ownership.” Bloomberg’s TV campaign to bludgeon Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor into changing his vote may also have boomeranged. Pryor responded to an ad from Mayors Against Illegal Guns with a re-election spot in which he angrily declared, “No one from New York or Washington tells me what to do.”

No one changes their vote in the Senate by announcing, “I misjudged the politics of the issue.” Instead, they need the fig leaf of claiming that the bill has been improved because of their principled objections. As Murphy explained, “It’s not an easy thing to switch a vote from no to yes in a six-month period of time. So the bill would have to be different from what we put on the floor in April. But perhaps not substantively different.”

The trick, of course, is to make the background-check legislation more appealing to wavering Democrats and Republicans without eviscerating it. Even now, as Blumenthal made clear, “The bill on background checks is very meager and modest in terms of what it accomplishes. It’s way less than I would like to do.” Blumenthal ticked off a list of more aggressive gun-control steps like banning high-capacity magazines and reinstating the assault-weapons ban. But unless the Northeast becomes a separate nation, far-reaching legislation like this is unlikely to pass Congress in this decade.

The strategy, according to both Blumenthal and Murphy, is to spend July seeing if the gun-control forces can concoct a modified bill that might survive a Senate filibuster in the fall. There is talk of adding an exemption to background checks for certain types of rural transactions and reiterating in the legislation that there would be no national registry of firearms purchases. Another possible legislative change would be to increase the modest funding already in the bill for mental-health efforts in the schools, since the NRA and conservatives suddenly have been arguing that better psychology might prevent future Newtowns.

But even—O frabjous day!—if the background-check legislation somehow passes the Senate, Obama is unlikely to ever preside over a White House signing ceremony. No one has any realistic strategy for dealing with the rambunctious right-wing Republican House. Bloomberg and Company can spend all the money they want on TV ads, but with only 28 GOP-held House seats in possible jeopardy in 2014 (according to the Cook Political Report), this is not a target-rich environment.

Only a child of Pollyanna and Dr. Pangloss could possibly believe that the environment will be more promising for gun control after the 2014 elections. Democrats will be lucky to hold their own in the Senate (especially with Pryor and Begich on the Bloomberg enemies list), while the party that controls the White House almost invariably loses congressional seats in the sixth year of a presidential term. With the searing memories of Newtown fading by 2015 and non-gun-related crises likely to dominate the national debate, it is hard to envision how background checks would make it through Congress in the lame-duck months of Obama’s second term. And such a four-year failure, alas, would only strengthen the purported political clout of the NRA.

For all the talk that 90 percent of the American people favor background checks (actually, in most surveys it is closer to 80 percent), there has been little movement in the polls on gun legislation since Obama vigorously enlisted in the crusade. For example, a CBS News/New York Times Poll found in January that 54 percent of voters believed that “gun control laws should be made more strict.” In early June, that number was an almost identical 51 percent. Other polls also show that public sentiment on gun control is frozen, despite Obama’s advocacy and the energy of new groups like Gabby Giffords’s Americans For Responsible Solutions. The point is not that gun legislation is unpopular. Rather, it is hard to find evidence in the surveys that the movement is gaining the momentum needed to sway wavering legislators.

Maybe the strategic mistake made by the White House and liberals in the anguished days after Newtown was to automatically return to the familiar litany of gun-control proposals, from an assault-weapons ban to enhanced background checks. Rather than changing the conversation on gun violence, the debate followed the familiar contours of the culture war. Legislative defeat was almost inevitable, no matter how many passionate speeches the president made. And it is hard to see how this preordained failure in Congress brings us any closer to preventing future carnage in elementary schools and movie theaters.

In hindsight, as counterintuitive as it may seem, liberals should have listened carefully when the NRA embraced the cause of mental health in a cynical effort to deflect blame from firearms. With federal mental-health programs underfunded since the Reagan years, it might have been fruitful to challenge the NRA and their Republican backers to support, say, $10-$20 billion for expanded mental-health programs as a memorial to Newtown.

Blumenthal, in particular, sees the continuing potential for expanded mental-health funding at a time of budget austerity. “I think the focus on firearms and background checks was not a mistake,” he said. “But I think it’s not too late to broaden it to mental health. I talked about mental health, other people talked about mental health, but it was always the phrase at the end of the sentence.”

A second-term president only gets to go to the nation on behalf of a limited number of causes before his administration gives way to lame-duck exhaustion. After Newtown, Obama uncharacteristically went with his heart rather than his head. But without a coherent strategy, without a different approach to curbing gun violence, he has little to show for his laudable efforts. And that is the second tragedy of Newtown. 

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