Within hours of the horrific Washington Navy Yard shooting, there were predictable calls for us to finally do something about America’s guns. But let’s be realistic. No significant new gun-control laws are going to be enacted in the wake of this latest shooting, just the most recent of a sickening wave of mass killings. In recent years we are seeing about 20 mass shootings per annum, and seven of the dozen deadliest shootings in American history have occurred in the past 15 years.
Welcome to the new normal.
There are 320 million guns in America, if not more. There aren’t any definitive statistics, but we know that the number is growing every day. The federal government ran 20 million background checks last year on sales, mostly from licensed dealers. We are not going to eliminate all those guns any more than we’re going to eliminate drugs or alcohol. It’s very hard to stop people from accessing small, easy-to-conceal things they feel passionately about. Some in the gun-control community once hoped that we could ban handguns or assault rifles, perhaps making America more like England, where guns are still relatively rare. By now, however, they know better. Maybe we can just get universal background checks?
More likely, as the Colorado recall election reminds, we’ll just vote out of office anyone who supports universal background checks. That is what just enough Democrats in the Senate concluded in April, when they voted to halt the president’s gun-control push.
Some people have wondered how that could happen, given that background checks are supported by up to 90 percent of the public. The answer is intensity. Ninety percent may support some new gun-control laws, but those aren’t single-issue voters. That support is broad, but not very deep. Those 90 percent aren’t going to base their vote on gun control. The 10 percent on the other side? Committed, energized, organized—in a word, active. Democracy rewards that kind of intensity.
And it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Newtown opened up a new chapter in the gun debate by propelling the once-silent-on-the-gun-issue President Obama to make a major push on gun control, inspiring the creation of new gun-control groups, and enticing Mayor Michael Bloomberg to throw more money into elections in Illinois and Colorado. At the time, lots of gun-control advocacy groups were calling the National Rifle Association a “paper tiger” with far less political power than often imagined. Then the NRA took down the president’s proposals before they even made it out of the Senate. New groups, like Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly’s, succeeded in winning tighter restrictions in a few states, only to see more than twice as many states go the other way and loosen gun restrictions. Bloomberg flamed out in Colorado, where two state legislators who supported gun control became the first to be recalled in state history. It may be a new chapter, but it’s the same ending.
Rep. Steny Hoyer said Tuesday that the gun debate should be opened up once again after the Navy yard shooting. Yet that is all we’ll see: more discussion, more hand-wringing in the media, more conversations over the dinner table. Even Hoyer admitted that the political prospects for new gun laws in Congress aren’t good. In fact, they are a nonstarter.
Truth be told, even if the politics of gun control had changed and, say, the president’s proposals had passed, we’d still be facing the mass shootings. There isn’t any law that will prevent a madman bent on killing a lot of people from doing just that. And no matter how many background checks we require, there are just too many guns in circulation already to arm such a crazed killer. Not that the NRA has a realistic answer. More guns in the U.S. clearly doesn’t lead to less mass shootings; we have more of each than any other Western nation. And just this year we’ve had mass shootings in both red states and blue states, in places with restrictive gun laws and those with lax laws.
What can—or more likely will—change? The politics of gun control won’t change until gun-control supporters become single-issue voters. So long as the political energy is overwhelmingly on the gun-rights side, no new laws will be enacted. We are likely to see more armed guards, as the NRA recommends, but that won’t be enough either. Shootings like this occur anywhere—coffee shops, malls, health clubs—and unless we’re going to turn our society into a prison camp, these shootings will continue to haunt us.
It’s enough to give one nightmares. Yet it isn’t a dream.