Real Shift or just Another Tragedy?
Little kids. First graders. Gunned down in their school in Newtown, Connecticut. There is a something haunting about this incident that just seems too horrible to even grapple with. A town is shattered and a nation is in shock just as Christmas approaches. Sorry, this is such a downer but I don’t know how anyone can move on without first acknowledging the horror and pain. We all know the debates are coming about gun control and mental health and securing schools. All of that is important and must be dealt with. But those images of Newtown and so many broken hearts just cry out for us to stop for a moment and reflect about life and kids and what kind of society we want. Mass shootings are all bad, but this one targeting young kids seems to be hitting an especially raw nerve.
The Debate Ahead
Already some members of the Democratic Party are calling for Congress to revisit the assault weapons ban, passed into law in 1994 but allowed to expire 10 years later. Gun control advocates have been on the defensive since the 1990s and public polls have shown a gradual decline in support for either banning or severely restricting gun purchases.
However, those who support gun control are expected to make a new push in the wake of the Connecticut massacre and they may have a new ally in President Barack Obama. With his re-election victory, Mr. Obama no longer has to worry about angering the pro-gun lobby in a future election. Throughout his first term, gun control advocates were disappointed that the president didn’t speak out more strongly in favor of tighter laws, especially in the wake of the 2011 Tucson, Arizona shooting that included the wounding of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, earlier this year.
Mr. Obama now says it is time for the country to act to prevent these kinds of mass shootings, though he seemed to be careful to not be specific about what he might support, at least for the moment.
Power of the Gun Lobby
A head-on attempt to restrict all guns in America would probably be doomed to failure. Start with Republican control of the House of Representatives and the fact that Democrats do not have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, even with the addition of two seats for the next Congress.
We may get to a renewed debate on whether to reinstate a ban on assault style weapons, though even that will be difficult with the NRA-led gun lobby that has effectively put the fear of God into many politicians in the South and West. It’s kind of a zero-sum game for them—they oppose virtually any and all gun control measures because they have convinced their followers that the real aim of gun control advocates is to confiscate guns, even though many politicians realize that is not the case. But Republicans have enough congressional power based in the southern and western states that will probably be able to block any serious attempt to significantly strengthen gun laws.
Don’t forget that Republican House districts tend to be more conservative now, in part because Republicans had a huge advantage in the redrawing of congressional districts based on the 2010 national census, a process known as re-districting. Because so many more House seats are solidly Republican, most of the incumbents in these districts are more fearful of Republican primary challengers than of Democratic opponents in the general election. Since most Republican challengers come from the right in primaries, incumbent Republican House members will want to make sure no one can outflank them on the right. And gun ownership is one of those issues that is dear to the heart of conservatives around the country, so few Republicans in conservative districts are likely to have much interest in serious gun control legislation.
The gun issue is one of those that clearly reflects the political polarization in the country. People in urban areas often say they don’t understand why so many Americans want to own guns and fend off any efforts to limit their access. In my travels to the Rocky Mountain West, I’ve found many people there who see owning guns as a major part of their lives and cannot understand what they perceive as an anti-gun mentality coming from folks back east.
Out with the Militia
In the late 1990s, I traveled to Montana to do a series of reports on the militia movement. We were looking at the growth of groups of people who armed themselves and did military-style drills to prepare for the Apocalypse, or the government trying to confiscate their guns, or even a takeover by the United Nations (these folks insisted all were real possibilities).
One day a few of these guys offered to take me target shooting up in the mountains of Western Montana, outside of the town of Missoula. I didn’t have much experience with guns, so it was a chance to see what it felt like to shoot pistols and rifles with a group of men who were obviously enthusiastic about their weapons.
I do recall trying a version of the AR-15, a semi-automatic assault-style rifle similar to the one used in Newtown and in several other mass shootings in recent years. The thing was light and had very little kick when you fired it. It was not explosively loud like a high-powered hunting rifle. It was easy to repeatedly pull the trigger and fire off rounds that seemed to hit the target. All I could think of was all that killing power in a light weapon with little kickback. I remember thinking at the time how someone bent on causing mass destruction would find it deceptively easy to wield this gun and fire at will.
So we can expect the gun control debate to intensify in the months ahead. But many Democrats have vivid memories of 1994 when Republicans effectively campaigned against gun control efforts, which led to Republicans taking over both the House of Representatives and the Senate. From that point on many Democrats, especially those from the South, Midwest and West became increasingly, how shall we say, gun-shy about the power of the gun lobby and tried to de-emphasize the issue as part of their own strategy of political survival.
The question is will the Newtown, Connecticut massacre be of such a different magnitude that it will actually cause a shift in the debate? It’s too early to know, but recent history suggests that the incidents at Columbine, Colorado, in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, Tucson and Aurora were not able by themselves to effect a major shift in the gun control issue.
Avoiding the Fiscal Cliff
There are some small glimmers of hope on avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff, the combination of about $500 trillion in tax hikes and budget cuts that go into effect in January that experts fear could plunge the U.S. economy back in to recession.
John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, appears willing to budge a bit on tax hikes for the wealthy. But his definition of who is wealthy does not jive yet with President Obama’s. The president and his Democratic allies in Congress want to see the tax rates rise on those making more than $250,000 a year, while Mr. Boehner has offered to raise taxes on those making more than $1 million.
It’s an encouraging sign, but I think the Republicans will now expect the president to put forward something more substantial on budget cuts. Specifically, they would like to see what Mr. Obama and Democrats in Congress would be willing to do to restrain the growth in entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Their reasoning is that for years Republicans have been clobbered in elections because they dared to propose cuts in these programs while Democrats positioned themselves as protectors of a popular government safety net for the old and the poor.
The next step may be the president revealing his hand a bit more on just what he would be willing to do to slow the growth of these programs, and to what degree liberal allies in Congress would squawk about it, further complicating efforts to reach a compromise in the next few weeks.