The cycle of futility after a major gun atrocity like the one that happened this week in Las Vegas is distressingly familiar to progressives: there’s some shouting back and forth about the relative role of our largely unregulated gun regime in making such incidents possible, and then nothing happens. Despite robust public-opinion majorities for some modest proposals to make certain kinds of weapons or ammunition less available to certain kinds of purchasers, it seems maddeningly difficult to move any legislation through Congress. And any effort to do so just seems to feed the perceptions of firearm enthusiasts that their Second Amendment rights are under attack. Even in the wake of national traumas like the murder of children in Newtown in 2012, the intensity of opposition to gun measures always appears to outweigh support.
A big part of the problem is that one of the country’s two major political parties is currently in the grip of Second Amendment absolutists who reflexively oppose any gun-regulation measure, however mild or reasonable or even popular; in fact, they are fighting very effectively for expansion of gun rights, particularly at the state level, where permissive concealed-carry laws have been spreading like wildfire. They are offered cover by mass-membership gun advocacy groups — most obviously the National Rifle Association, but also the borderline-deranged Gun Owners of America, whose “no compromise” position is increasingly harder to differentiate from the NRA’s. The absolutists relentlessly promote slippery-slope fears that any enhancement of firearms regulations will lead quickly to the confiscation of all privately held weapons, in harness with conspiracy theories contending that centrist Democratic politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are plotting to “take your guns.” And lurking behind their arguments is the even darker belief, which an alarming number of GOP politicians have embraced, that the Second Amendment encompasses a right of revolution that requires a heavily armed population prepared to overthrow the government if it perceives its rights — mostly notably the Second Amendment itself — are endangered.
Given this dynamic, the most urgent task for progressives favoring any kind of firearms regulation is to seek to separate Second Amendment absolutists from Republicans who are at least open to reasonable restrictions. And that is why Dianne Feinstein’s new bill to ban the kind of “bump-stocks” that made it possible for Stephen Paddock to convert semiautomatic to functionally automatic weapons capable of distributing death with blinding speed. A few congressional Republicans have reacted positively, if cautiously, to the idea. One of them was Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who in the recent past has shown some awareness of the dangers of Second Amendment absolutism as expressed by a certain Senate colleague and presidential rival:
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s argument that the Second Amendment provides the “ultimate check against government tyranny” is a bit too extreme for potential 2016 rival and fellow Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
“Well, we tried that once in South Carolina. I wouldn’t go down that road again,” Graham said, in an apparent reference to the Civil War. “I think an informed electorate is probably a better check than, you know, guns in the streets.”
Graham’s willingness to call out Second Amendment absolutists and the terroristic threats they implicitly make against anyone who opposes their political goals is the kind of thing progressives ought to be encouraging. In time this sort of pushback to extremism could reverse the momentum the hard-core gun lobby enjoys within the GOP and begin to isolate them —along with the militia members, Oath-Keepers, and other fringe elements of the right that share the belief Americans need to be stockpiling guns to kill police officers and members of the U.S. military if they decide government has become “tyrannical.”
The Breitbart News propaganda machine is already firing away at the “Surrender Caucus” of Republicans who are daring to express openness to any gun legislation. For its part the NRA has taken the tack of calling for a “review” by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) to determine whether these [bump-stock] devices comply with federal law.” As if to accentuate their continuing opposition to gun legislation that doesn’t expand gun rights, the same statement called on Congress to “pass National Right-to-Carry reciprocity, which will allow law-abiding Americans to defend themselves and their families from acts of violence.”
Without doubt, many advocates for modest gun regulation have become frustrated with the kind of small, incremental progress the Feinstein bill would represent, particularly when the gun lobby treats any proposals as identically horrifying. Some are probably leaning in the direction of Bret Stephens’s argument that nothing short of the repeal of the Second Amendment will make any difference in reducing gun violence or changing the politics of the subject.
Such talk, of course, will only strengthen the hand of the Second Amendment absolutists who want to depict every discussion of firearms as a Manichean struggle against those who want to confiscate all firearms, outlaw hunting, and expose Americans to rape, murder, and robbery by the criminals who defy gun laws. Before succumbing to this temptation, progressives should renew efforts to drive a wedge between reasonable and unreasonable gun-rights supporters. At stake is something even larger than the battle to reduce gun killings: It’s a battle to ensure that the GOP does not descend into total madness and complicity in plans for revolutionary violence.