Have the Politics of Gun Control Changed?

At The Washington Post, Greg Sargent reports that five red-state Democrats—Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota—have been unwilling to voice support for expanding the background-check program—"the centerpiece," he writes, "of President Obama's package of gun reforms." Their rationale is straightforward: Supporting this policy might hurt us in our states, or leave us vulnerable to Republican attacks. This, despite the fact that expanded background checks have wide support from the public.

It's hard, at this point, to make predictions on the status of the policy, but if this is any indication, the situation doesn't look good—if Democrats have backed away from an assault-weapons ban, and are skittish over expanded background checks, then what hope is there for meaningful gun control policies?

Indeed, it's tempting to argue—as Chris Cillizza does—that national outrage notwithstanding, the Sandy Hook massacre has done little to change the political landscape on gun control. As he writes:

The decision this week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to drop the assault weapons ban and a ban on high-capacity clips from the broader Congressional effort to curb gun violence sent an unmistakable message: the murders of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut in late 2012 has not changed politics as much as many people thought it might. […]

That’s a hard political truth to hear for many Americans who viewed what happened in Connecticut as a moment when the conversation about guns in America changed. […]

[A]s Newtown disappeared further in the political rearview mirror, the same politics that had turned guns into a dormant issue on the national political stage for much of the 1990s and 2000s began to take hold.

This, to me, is the wrong way to think of the issue. The shift from a political climate that could tolerate gun control to one that couldn't took more than a decade. Even with the tragedies at Newtown, Aurora, and other places across the country, it's unreasonable to expect the pendulum to swing back at a more rapid pace. What's key about Sandy Hook isn't that it yields new legislation, it's that it inspires new activism around gun control, and provides energy for the long effort to build a political coalition unafraid of the cultural politics that surround guns.

Sandy Hook—helped along by a new Democratic majority of urbanites and nonwhites—has changed the politics of gun control. It will just take awhile for us to see the effects.