Politicizing gun control

I felt the sadness that all Americans felt on hearing the news of the shooting this morning. It is a deeper sorrow because anyone old enough to comprehend the news was once a child and feels how terribly unjust it is for people still so young, still trying to grapple with the world and become a citizen of the world to be murdered just as their journey is beginning. For children to be shot down in school, a place where they should be learning to live alongside other people in the world in a protected environment is particularly tragic.

The debate about politicizing the issue is an important one, because political maneuvering is precisely how systematic change has been accomplished on this issue. It's why I was heartened to see many people who are advocates of gun control pushing back hard on those demonizing them for politicizing the issue. As Jill Lepore reported in her overview of the evolution of gun control in America, and as Jeffrey Toobin covers in two chapters on the Second Amendment in The Oath, the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King in the 1960's spurred the passing of strict gun control laws. Tragedy plus politicking led to law.

But in the 1970's, the NRA began shifting the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment from one about guaranteeing the people's right to form a militia for defense against the government to one about an individual's civil liberties, specifically the right of one person to own a gun. In the past decade, that shift has been completed with astonishing success, culminating in the Supreme Court's ruling in the District of Columbia versus Heller. In writing the majority opinion, Justice Scalia wrote:

The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.

The 2nd Amendment advocates have been much better organized and politically effective at both a national level and a state level for many years now. So for gun control proponents to try to politicize an issue is exactly the right tactic; playing the political game will be far more effective on an issue like this than, say, expressing indignation on Twitter, as cathartic as that might be.

[This is not to say the collective opinion on Twitter can't make a huge difference on some issues, like pressuring corporate brands to change their behavior to take one example. However, on this particular issue of gun control in America, it has shown minimal political and legal impact. Sadly, we have had multiple instances to serve as evidence in recent history.]

The most important way to win on gun control is to make it a make-or-break voting issue for your political representative. 2nd Amendment defenders have always done this, and that has made it politically expedient for politicians to be on their side in elections. Perhaps you couldn't start with an outright ban, where the majority of Americans (though not a majority of people I follow on social media) still support their own right to bear arms, but you could start to attack at the margins, as with assault weapons. It's no guarantee of victory, but it has also never meant a loss. As with every powerful special interest, the gun lobby works longer and harder than its opposition, who shout loudly on days like today, then forget about the issue after a short period of time. This issue will not shift overnight, it will take time, and beating the gun lobby at their own game means matching their endurance and will. That's something that hasn't happened in decades.

If the gun control proponents were able to pass some federal or state laws, the legality would still likely end up landing at the feet of today's Supreme Court, where Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas seem entrenched in their support of the modern interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. With Justice Kennedy being the swing vote that shows few signs of leaving their side, the odds would seem stacked against such laws standing up, especially in light of District of Columbia versus Heller. But it would be a start, and, since the Supreme Court has tended to lag public opinion on issues, a necessary one.

The other thought that strikes me in all this debate is that the Right has won, as they often do, in framing the terminology of this debate. "Gun control" as a term is framed as a negative, as a federal impingement on something. If the debate were about "disarming potential homicidal maniacs" it would feel more difficult to be in the opposition. How we name these issues has an underrated impact on how we perceive them. We need to name our indignation and sorrow more accurately. We are not trying to control guns, we are trying to protect our children.