Gun Control Stalls After Sandy Hook, but Stage Set for Changes to Come

American politics are slow moving, writes Jamelle Bouie, but as with same-sex marriage this year’s stalled gun-control fight may point to dramatic progress ahead.

04.03.13 8:45 AM ET

Yesterday, the National Rifle Association released its plan for safer schools, including its recommendation that every school have an armed guard. It's a ridiculous idea; “good guys” with guns are just as likely to be shot as anyone else, as evidenced by the recent killing of an armed district attorney in Texas.

Former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson announces the recommendations of the NRA backed National School Shield Program regarding school security during a press conference April 2, 2013 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Among other findings, the report recommended training and placing armed personnel in public schools following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Win McNamee/Getty

Former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson announces the recommendations of the NRA-backed National School Shield program regarding school security during a press conference April 2 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

But, four months after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, this is where we are on the question of gun laws and gun safety. The initial energy seems to have dissipated—congressional Democrats have given up on a new assault-weapons ban, and Republicans have been vocal in their opposition to anything that may burden gun owners (or, for that matter, manufacturers). Key Democrats refuse to voice their support for the most mild of reforms—for fear of alienating voters—and while the Senate may vote on a package of gun-control laws next week, which includes universal background checks and a federal gun-trafficking law, it's unclear whether supporters can break a likely filibuster, to say nothing of getting a bill through the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

Given the tremendous violence of Sandy Hook, we had every reason to think that Congress would respond with new gun laws. Just a few days after the shooting, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin—a hunter and staunch “gun rights” Democrat—told Politico that it was time to “move beyond rhetoric” on gun control, and the following month, conservative Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said he was open to measures to prevent illegal gun sales. “I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment…I also think, though, that we do have to do things to make sure the database of the FBI has all the information so people can’t buy guns that shouldn’t have guns.”

But we haven’t come close to either policy, and that makes it easy to take the fatalistic view that nothing has changed about the politics of guns and gun ownership. Fortunately, it's not that simple. In a lot of ways, things have changed.

It was just five years ago, after all, that then-senator Barack Obama tried to avoid a pointed question on gun control during a debate with then-senator Hillary Clinton. When asked if he supported the District of Columbia’s ban on certain kinds of weapons, Obama hemmed and hawed for several minutes before finishing with a bland platitude, “The point is, is that what we have to do is get beyond the politics of this issue and figure out what, in fact, is working.”

Now? Obama has become a forceful advocate for new gun laws, even though—as former Romney strategist Stuart Stevens notes—it comes after the presidential election. In a speech last Thursday, for example, he reaffirmed his commitment to new gun-control policies. “We need everybody to remember how we felt 100 days ago and make sure that what we said at that time wasn’t just a bunch of platitudes—that we meant it.”

What’s important to remember is that most things in American politics are slow moving; even with a major, galvanizing event the pendulum won’t swing immediately in the other direction. It took more than a decade for “guns” to become an issue that cowed liberals and Democrats. Since 1994, when an activist position on gun control—remember the assault-weapon ban?—helped cost Democrats the house, they began retreating from an issue that seemed like a political loser. After Al Gore’s gun position helped cost him New Hampshire, and with it the presidency, in 2000 and wedge cultural issues again benefitted Bush in 2004, Democrats became, pardon the pun, gun shy.

What we need to see with Sandy Hook and its aftermath isn’t whether it yields immediate legislation, but whether it helps build support for future political coalitions that actually have the power to secure new national gun laws.

The fight for marriage equality is instructive. In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled the state’s constitution “forbids the creation of second-class citizens” and fails to “to identify any constitutionally adequate reason for denying civil marriage to same-sex couples.” The following year, then–San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom issued a directive to city-county clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

These moves didn’t shift public opinion or change the short-term political climate—by the end of 2004, same-sex marriage bans had bulldozed to victory in 11 states, and reached 13 more by the end of the decade. But it’s not an exaggeration to say that those small steps toward marriage equality changed the larger landscape. “What those events did was show us what was possible. They made it clear how quickly the tide could turn on the issue,” says political activist Scot Nakagawa, in reference to Massachusetts and an earlier battle in Hawaii. “It turned same-sex marriage from a hot potato no one wanted to touch into a strategic opportunity to cast the demands of the queer movement in terms that non-LGBT middle of the roaders could understand.”

The polling bears this out. For the last eight years, a rapidly growing number of Americans have voiced support for same-sex marriage, from around 30 percent in 2004, to more than 40 percent in 2008, to a small majority in 2012.

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Gun control is a different situation, but you can see a similar dynamic at work in the post–Sandy Hook environment. Since the tragedy, gun control has moved to the top of the political agenda for the first time in years. State lawmakers in New York and New Jersey have moved to tighten laws, as have lawmakers in Connecticut and Maryland. And in Colorado—site of Aurora and Columbine—Gov. John Hickenlooper recently signed a sweeping package of gun-control measures that would expand background checks on gun purchases and limit the size of ammunition magazines.

When those developments are considered along with New York City Mayor Bloomberg's big-bucks advertising push on gun control, which has created for the first time a committed and deep-pocketed special-interest group to counterbalance the NRA’s pressure to water down existing laws and stop new ones, it’s clear that we’re at the beginning of a new round of activism that can shift the political center over time.

And it may pay dividends in short order. Already, for example, it’s become clear that guns—and what to do about new regulations—will become a key issue in future Democratic primaries. And given positioning by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (both have pushed new gun laws through their respective legislatures) it might even be an issue that prospective 2016 Democratic presidential candidates use to build their liberal bona fides.

The main thing to know is this: American politics happens on a long time horizon. We may not get gun control this year, or in the next year, or in the next presidential term. But the politics of this issue are changing, and eventually, something will give. It always does.