As the latest mass shooting unfolded in Roseburg, Oregon, I was having lunch in Washington with Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Unaware of what was occurring across the country, he pitched me on the notion that a cultural “tipping point” is nearing when it comes to guns. He cited Mad Men and its depiction of American life in the sixties when drinking and driving and smoking on planes and while pregnant was the norm.
“A changing culture will lead to changed policy,” he said.
Younger viewers of Mad Men couldn’t believe the casual way Don Draper and his family dumped their litter on the ground after picnicking in a public park. Perhaps someday Americans will look back at the mayhem of the last several years, when 15 mass shootings in schools, movie theaters, and churches generated primetime condemnation and condolences from President Obama, and be as disbelieving at the easy availability of guns as we were at the absence of laws penalizing litterers.
Of course, smokers and litterers don’t enjoy constitutional protection the way gun advocates do with the Second Amendment. But regulation can stand the test of the courts. “We should focus on what we agree on, which is keeping guns out of the wrong hands, which means convicted felons, domestic abusers, the dangerously mentally ill—and unsupervised kids.”
“We have a plan, and it’s state-by-state,” Gross continued, acknowledging change doesn’t happen overnight. It took six votes over seven years before the original Brady Bill, which mandated federal background checks on gun purchasers, passed in 1993.
He cited Oregon, which in May of this year expanded background checks on all private gun sales, including transactions on the Internet. Oregon is one of 18 states so far to expand Brady background checks, and ballot initiatives in Nevada and Maine are likely to win approval next year despite opposition from the gun lobby. “It’s easier to bully politicians than to defeat ballot initiatives,” says Gross. Sadly, the new Oregon law did not prevent the shooting at Roseburg, and it’s worth noting that in 2014 Oregon received just a D-plus from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Gross returned to his office after lunch Thursday, as did I, “to a horror show” as the savagery at Umpquah Community College played out all too predictably on the cable networks, accompanied by Obama’s angry vow to talk more about gun violence even if it means “politicizing” the issue. This was followed by the usual punditry about how nothing will change in a Congress that is even more pro-gun now than it was after the massacre of 26 first-graders at Sandy Hook.
“Stuff happens,” Jeb Bush memorably said, dismissing along with his fellow Republican candidates any meaningful legislative action. He may be right, yet both political parties are in the throes of uprisings within, fueled by disgust with politics as usual.
The tipping point that gun-safety activists long for may not be immediately apparent, but it’s coming. “We’re so inured to this, if any one event can shake us from this slump, maybe a foreign terrorist taking advantage of loopholes,” guessed Matt Bennett with Third Way, an organization that began as Americans for Gun Safety. “That terrible thought has crossed the mind of everybody working on this issue,” Gross agreed.
To help forestall future horrific scenarios, whether they are homegrown or foreign inspired, the Brady Campaign is targeting what it calls “Bad Apple Gun Dealers,” like one on the outskirts of Chicago that they say supplied 1,500 guns used in crimes in Chicago between 2009 and 2013.
Five percent of gun dealers provide nearly 90 percent of the guns involved in criminal behavior. The Brady Campaign is gathering signatures from mayors and governors to demand that Attorney General Loretta Lynch order the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which reports to the Justice Department, to take away the licenses of these “bad apples.”
The problem is that the ATF is cowed by the NRA and by Congress, which provides its funding, plus it’s been leaderless since its former Obama-appointed head resigned after an outcry over the agency’s attempt to ban bullets that can pierce police armor.
This is where political will collides with reality. “We need Loretta Lynch to do her job,” says Gross. “If she wanted to make this a priority, she could; and if the president wanted her to make it a priority, he could.”
In the end it comes down to how much political noise people are willing to make over this issue. Next week the Democrats take the stage in Las Vegas for their first debate, and the burden will be on them to say what they would do as president to curb gun violence. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a distant third in the polls among Democrats, has adopted as his rallying cry the Brady Campaign goal of cutting gun deaths in half by 2025.
Clinton will remind voters that her husband signed the Brady Bill and an assault weapons ban when he was president. She will gladly highlight her differences with Bernie Sanders, whose record on guns could surprise and confound his liberal supporters. In addition to opposing the original Brady Bill, he voted for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), which protects gun manufacturers from lawsuits and thus absolves them from any responsibility for the product they create. “It’s pure evil,” Gross says of the law.
The legislation had been the NRA’s top priority for some time when President Bush signed it into law in 2005. Sanders explained his vote in a July interview on CNN saying it was a matter of fairness and you wouldn’t “hold a hammer company responsible if somebody beat somebody over the head with a hammer.”
Whether or not we have reached a tipping point in the overall consideration of gun violence, the debate will be joined at the presidential level, and it’s about time.