WASHINGTON — You have to hand it to the gun manufacturers lobby. Children may be slaughtered, the death toll from firearms may keep mounting, but these guys are unrelenting and know how to play politics.
Last week’s successful recalls of two state legislators in Colorado because they supported their state’s new, carefully drawn gun law gave the National Rifle Association and its allies exactly what they wanted: intimidating headlines. The one on ABC News’ website was representative: “Colorado Recall Elections Chill Push for New Gun Laws.”
This is how self-fulfilling prophesies are born. If matters stop there and the idea takes hold, the gun extremists will, indeed, win.
It would be great, of course, if all politicians were like Colorado Senate President John Morse, a former police chief, and state Sen. Angela Giron. Despite being recalled, both Democrats have been unrepentant about championing background checks and limits on gun magazines to 15 rounds.
“I spent years as a paramedic treating people who have been shot,” Morse said in a telephone interview. “I spent years as a police officer investigating situations in which people have been shot. I have been shot at myself. I may have been voted out of office, but the bill stays, the law stays.”
Morse also cautioned proponents of stricter gun laws around the country not to read too much into a low-turnout election. He stressed the impact of a court decision that effectively barred mail-in ballots in the contests. Since 70 percent of Coloradans normally vote by mail, the ruling gave the highly energized opponents of the law a leg up. And the latest count showed that Morse was defeated by only 343 votes, although Giron’s margin of defeat was wider.
Yet the intensity gap is precisely the problem.
Shortly after a background check bill failed to get 60 votes in the U.S. Senate last April, a Pew survey found that 73 percent of Americans still backed the proposal while only 20 percent opposed it. But when respondents were asked if they’d refuse to vote for a candidate who disagreed with them on guns, those whose priority was to protect gun rights were more likely to say yes than those who thought it more important to control gun ownership. Even more significant, 12 percent of the gun rights partisans said they had given money to groups on their side of the issue, compared with only 3 percent who believed in regulating gun ownership.
The gun lobby has a large base. Those seeking more sensible gun laws still need to build one.
Doing so requires them to grapple with the fact that political issues can carry meanings far beyond the specifics of policy. These days, we tend to celebrate the autonomy granted us by technology, geographical mobility and an economy of free agents. Yet a pollster who conducted focus groups on gun control told me recently of her surprise that talk about guns quickly turned into a discussion of what participants experienced as a weakening of solidarity and shared commitment.
Neighborhoods, they said, were no longer alliances of parents collectively keeping watch over the area’s kids, and they mourned the absence of a common understanding of the values that ought to be passed on to the next generation. Perhaps paradoxically, the stronger bonds of community they see unraveling had once given them more real control over their own lives.
The gun lobby responds to this lost world by saying: If you feel your power ebbing, grab a gun, and don’t let the elitists disarm you because they disdain your values and your way of life.
How to answer? Certainly Colorado shows that when sane legislation is enacted, its supporters need to sell the benefits far more effectively and to persuade more voters to see gun sanity as a make-or-break issue. And they should follow the NRA in never allowing setbacks to demobilize them.
But they also need to be clear that they seek background checks, smaller magazines and the like not to disempower gun owners but to liberate all of us from fears that madmen might gun down our children and wreak havoc in our communities.
Those of us who support gun regulations share with most gun owners a devotion to a rather old-fashioned world. We believe that the possession of firearms comes with responsibilities and that we need to take seriously our obligations to protect one another. Ours is the real fight for liberty. For if we become a society in which everyone has to be armed, we will truly have lost the most basic freedom there is.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.