Perhaps last week’s gun massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, will turn the red tide. The kids seem to be taking matters in their own trembling hands, planning a gun-violence march and calling out the politicians, including Florida Governor Rick Scott and the president whose election benefited from $30 million in National Rifle Association spending (that we know of), neither of whom has exhibited, in his official capacities, much discomfort about the ease with which unstable men acquire arsenals.
During his tenure, Scott signed a few of the gun-nut bills that form the stations of the NRA cross, including an unconstitutional abomination preventing physicians from discussing firearms with patients, effectively killing the First Amendment in order to sanctify the Second. With high schoolers on the march, he’s suddenly expressing concern about the nexus of guns and mental health.
That’s largely a dodge, a way to deflect attention from the material and regulation-responsive world of guns to the ephemeral and difficult-to-regulate realm of the mind. But if the kids keep up the pressure, perhaps we’ll see some genuine adaptation from the political species.
While the kids, eloquent and impassioned, have put the pols on the defensive, they can’t command the spotlight forever. They have trauma to overcome and lives to reclaim. Taking their pain and outrage, and channeling it into a productive public policy outcome, is a job for a movement, and a decent political party to realize the movement’s goals.
Not all Democrats seem to grasp the moment as clearly as the gun regulation advocates do. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, a state that in recent years has made great strides in regulating guns, previously proposed a ban on assault weapons. Now she has also proposed raising the age at which an American can purchase a semi-automatic rifle to 21. (The Parkland shooter, 19 and a known threat, was free to buy an AR-15 in Florida.) The time for such incrementalism, itself a product of residual fear of the gun lobby and election defeats past, is gone. Democrats need to aim much higher.
Guns are a wholly partisan issue now. The NRA has deployed its resources to defeat even gun-compliant Democrats. Democrats must confront it.
While guns-everywhere-for-anybody has largely been the trend in red states, blue states from Hawaii to Connecticut have been moving in the opposite direction. As a result, Democrats have ready, off-the-shelf solutions at hand. They should start promoting them at the national level — without apology or delay.
Take Hawaii. It requires firearms purchasers to obtain a license and requires almost all guns to be registered. Instead of treating guns like toys, the state treats them like cars — and presumes that operating them requires a modest degree of responsibility. The NRA calls these policies tyranny, but it’s doubtful many Americans will concur with the view that Hawaii is a gulag.
In California, every gun sale requires a background check processed through a licensed dealer. In addition, family members or authorities can obtain a court order to restrict a dangerous person’s legal access to guns. In 2016, voters in the state approved reforms including point-of-sale background check on ammunition purchases — the first in the nation.
Connecticut has many similar laws — including a two-week waiting period on long-gun sales from dealers and the required reporting of prohibited individuals to the background-check database.
These laws are constitutional. And while they are sometimes undermined by the guns-everywhere laws of other states — California is next to lackadaisical Arizona; Connecticut is up the interstate from Florida — they are making it harder for criminals and the unstable to obtain lethal firepower.
Yet even as such policies advance in many states, discussion of them is largely absent at the federal level. Democrats in Congress must become much more outspoken and ambitious.
But incremental steps has been both ineffective as policy and as politics. Does anyone really believe that raising the age at which a disturbed youth can purchase an AR-15 from 18 to 21 will have a serious effect on gun violence? Or on motivating someone to vote?
To make Republicans pay for their devotion to the NRA, Democrats will have to make guns a bigger issue. To make it an effective issue, they will have to offer a vision of something better than continued acquiescence to the homicidal fantasies of every unhinged man in America. Federal gun laws are the product of fanaticism and cowardice. To combat the former, Democrats will have to free themselves of the latter.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View.