No, Smug Liberals Aren’t the Reason We Lack Sane Gun Laws

Most Americans are with her. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The United States suffers more gun homicides per capita than any of its peers in the developed world. It also has fewer restrictions on firearm ownership than any other advanced democracy; and as mass shootings have become ever more common at America’s schools, offices, and churches in recent years, our nation’s gun laws have grown even looser.

This bizarre state of affairs has led some centrist pundits to conclude that American politics is broken in fundamental ways (which is correct) — and that this is because liberals haven’t shown sufficient respect for the NRA in their social media posts (which is not).

Here’s David Brooks’s rendition of the argument in the New York Times:

This has been an emotional week. We greet tragedies like the school shooting in Florida with shock, sadness, mourning and grief that turns into indignation and rage. The anger inevitably gets directed at the N.R.A., those who support gun rights, and the politicians who refuse to do anything while children die.

Many of us walked this emotional path. But we may end up doing more harm than good. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it is that guns have become a cultural flash point in a nation that is unequal and divided. The people who defend gun rights believe that snobbish elites look down on their morals and want to destroy their culture. If we end up telling such people that they and their guns are despicable, they will just despise us back and dig in their heels.

So if you want to stop school shootings it’s not enough just to vent and march. It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points. There has to be trust and respect first. Then we can strike a compromise on guns as guns, and not some sacred cross in the culture war.

In USA Today, Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler of the centrist think tank Third Way tell a similar story:

A different approach is needed to enact new national gun laws. We have to jettison the idea that the next gun horror will tip the scales toward action and instead bridge the divide at the heart of America’s split on guns — the divide between those who see guns primarily as a threat to their safety and those who see guns as a form of self-protection.

There are several problems with these arguments (among them, the fact that elected Democrats have almost universally pursued the exact rhetorical strategy that these pundits prescribe). But the two biggest ones are: America is not actually that divided on gun policy, and massacres like the one in Florida do generally tip the scales of public opinion toward action. For years now, polls have consistently found that between 80 and 90 percent of American gun owners support universal background checks. And while public opinion on assault-weapons bans varies widely from poll to poll, shortly after the Las Vegas shooting last fall, an NPR/Ipsos survey found 79 percent of the public expressing support for such a measure — a majority that included 70 percent of all Republicans.

In the immediate aftermath of the Vegas massacre, liberals showed no great sensitivity to the average AR-15 stockpiler’s feelings. And yet, an uptick in Republican support for gun control ensued nonetheless.

Over the past week, teenage survivors of the Parkland shooting have been publicly shaming the president and his party for failing to keep their friends safe. The vitriolic tenor of their protest apparently inspired David Brooks’s plea for understanding. And yet, a Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday found a record-high 66 percent of Americans saying that they favor “stricter gun laws”; in December 2015, that figure was 47 percent, with 50 percent opposed.

Remarkably, the pollster finds support for stricter gun laws is at 62 percent among white voters without a college degree, and 50 percent with self-identified gun owners. Among Quinnipiac’s other findings:

Support for universal background checks is itself almost universal, 97 - 2 percent, including 97 - 3 percent among gun owners. Support for gun control on other questions is at its highest level since the Quinnipiac University Poll began focusing on this issue in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre:

67 - 29 percent for a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons;

83 - 14 percent for a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases. It is too easy to buy a gun in the U.S. today, American voters say 67 - 3 percent. If more people carried guns, the U.S. would be less safe, voters say 59 - 33 percent. Congress needs to do more to reduce gun violence, voters say 75 - 17 percent.

This is just one poll. But the president’s recent concessions to pro-gun-safety sentiment — his decision to signal openness to background check legislation, his announcement of support for a measure banning bump stocks, and a report that he might be in favor of raising the minimum age for purchasing guns like the one used in the Parkland massacre — suggest that something has persuaded the White House to start seeing its absolutist opposition to gun control as a political liability.

All of which is to say: It simply is not the case that Congress has failed to pass gun control reforms because urban elites condescend to rural America, thereby depressing popular support for middle-of-the-road legislation. Public opinion is not the problem; the incapacity of America’s governing institutions to translate expert-endorsed, majoritarian sentiments into public policy is.

Much of Brooks’s analysis proceeds from the premise that GOP lawmakers oppose gun reforms because that is what most of their voters want them to do. But that’s a curious assumption, given the fact that congressional Republicans spent most of last year trying to gut Medicaid and slash taxes on the rich, even as polls consistently demonstrated (and the GOP’s mendacious rhetoric often tacitly admitted) that most Republican voters did not support those goals.

The truth is that, due to the advantages of incumbency, partisan polarization, and gerrymandering, most congressional Republicans have more to fear from defying the far-right fringe of their base than they have to gain from diligently representing the consensus views of their constituents. Or, at least, most seem to believe as much. This reality, combined with a well-funded gun lobby that boasts a small but impassioned grassroots following; legislative institutions that minimize the voice of the most passionately pro-gun-control constituencies (by privileging rural areas over urban ones); and the advent of a 60-vote threshold for virtually every piece of legislation in the Senate have all conspired to make passing even overwhelmingly popular gun reforms exceedingly difficult — even when progressives succeed in winning hearts and minds on the issue in Red America. Thus, pundits who want to see action on gun control should spend less time tone-policing their liberal Facebook friends, and more time calling for the abolition of the filibuster.

Now, none of this is to say that liberals shouldn’t make an effort to empathize with Republican voters or to defuse the salience of culture-war divides. The fact that a significant number of rank-and-file Republicans believe that assault weapons should be banned; taxes on the rich should be higher; and the government should spend more on health care suggests that there are votes to be gained in defusing tribal resentments. But progressives’ anti-NRA tweets aren’t obstacles to such outreach.

In his column, Brooks describes a series of focus groups between “red” and “blue” voters, and celebrates the common ground they were able to find through respectful engagement. Such encounters are a perennial trope in centrist punditry, where they’re often used to elide deep and abiding divisions in American life (e.g., the pervasiveness of racism and class conflict). Still, there’s a kernel of truth to such anecdotes — one that committed progressive organizers will readily endorse: Respectful, face-to-face engagement with those who reside outside blue America’s confines can (on occasion) make a difference.

Progressives don’t need to stop railing against the far-right on Facebook; but they could probably stand to knock on a few more doors.

No, Smug Liberals Aren’t the Reason We Lack Sane Gun Laws