It’s a new year, and The New York Times reported the depressing but unsurprising news that in terms of gun homicides, 2020 is off to the usual horrible start. By the morning of Jan. 1, St. Louis police were investigating 10 different shootings. But no reason to pick on St. Louis. The mayhem was nationwide: Newsweek reported that there were 45 gun homicides in the United States on New Year’s Day, and there were 100 deaths nationwide in the first two days of this year, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive.
As bad as these numbers are—and however sick the public has become of the carnage and human misery of mass shootings—until now they’ve not been enough to counteract the political power and singular focus of those whose top priority is keeping their right to bear arms almost entirely unregulated.
That’s shifted over the last year from a combination of factors—the sheer frequency of massacres in the most ordinary, everyday settings; the Democratic takeover of the House in 2018 by candidates no longer hiding from the issue; and the decline of the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful lobbying groups Washington has ever seen. For the first time, in an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll taken in September 2019, more people favor gun control than gun rights.
A part of that shift in public opinion comes as the NRA craters. Gun-safety advocates can’t take credit for that, but they will benefit. Donald Trump’s largest outside contributors in 2016 at $30 million, the NRA won’t be spending like that in 2020. The group’s in chaos as various internal factions blamed each other for a near- bankruptcy brought on by, among others, self-indulgent CEO Wayne LaPierre, who spent millions on private jet travel, makeup artists, European vacations, and Italian suits from a Beverly Hills boutique.
This changes the calculus of politicians who have long cowered in fear at the prospect of being sent back to Topeka to handle slip-and-fall cases after an “F" rating from the NRA. Some may still cower—out of habit or instinct or from living in a concealed carry state where you’re underdressed if you don’t wear your gun as a fashion accessory.
But wiser ones will see the public decline of the gun rights lobby and the outrage after the shocking mass murder of children still taking naps with their blankies at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012, outrage that has gained more force from the tireless effort of the teenage survivors of the Parkland shootings demanding laws to protect them.
It shouldn’t take much courage for politicians to heed polls that show a vast majority of Americans favor extending mandatory background checks and licensing to previously exempted private and gun show sales, and that 57 percent favor an outright ban on the real culprit of mass murder, assault weapons. The police are not equipped—much less the teachers in schools that Republicans want to arm—to take on the gunman who killed nine people in 32 seconds in Dayton, Ohio.
Politics follows culture, eventually, and something similar to what’s happening with gun control happened in the fight for same-sex marriage: decades of struggle in which change seemed all but impossible culminating in a great awakening that only seems sudden in retrospect.
In 2004, then-State Senator Barack Obama’s view was, “Marriage is between one man and one woman.” He evolved into supporting civil unions (remember those?), but he evolved further until, suddenly, in 2012 his vice president said that of course the administration favored marriage equality.
In both struggles—gun safety and gay marriage—the language is moral, right versus wrong, and deeply personal. Almost everyone has a loved one, or knows someone with a loved one, harmed by mindless bigotry or senseless violence. Gun owners see the same child-sized coffins the rest of us do and know they’re not that kind of gun owner.
Deep down, some conservatives came to realize that any threat to their marriages comes from themselves, not the gay couple down the block, even if the awakening sometimes takes having a gay family member, like Ohio Senator Rob Portman.
The world doesn’t fall apart because a gay couple can get a marriage license. It’s only fair that Jack gets to have the same happiness, recognition, and government support that comes with a Groom & Groom atop the cake and family and friends celebrating that his sister Jill does. Life goes on if a hunter or homeowner has to register his gun as well as his car.
Corporations that used to be on the NRA side have seen, and followed, the change in public attitudes. Business shunned Indiana after former Gov. Mike Pence went all-in on a law to protect bakers who refused to bake wedding cakes for gay couples and did the same to North Carolina when that state’s Republican governor lost the NCAA tournament and other sporting events—not to mention re-election—in a dust-up over bathroom assignments.
So, too, after the El Paso disaster, Walmart's CEO decided to stop selling ammunition for the weapon that killed 22 people and injured 24 others and asked shoppers in open-carry states to leave their firearms at home. Shortly after, CVS and Walgreens followed suit. Dick’s Sporting Goods removed firearms and hunting gear from 10 stores in the fall of 2018, destroyed $5 million worth of rifles, and pulled high-capacity magazines from its shelves the next fall.
Recent polls don’t survey how badly the hollow bromide “thoughts and prayers” plays, but it still comes out of the president’s mouth after a mass shooting, along with the fake possibility of doing something. That lasts for as long as it takes LaPierre to come calling in his Zegna suit and tell Donald Trump not to. Trump then orders a waiting and willing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to keep all those “Democrat” gun safety bills crammed in his bottom drawer where they belong.
As happened with same-sex marriage, the public leads, the business community follows, and then everyone waits for the politicians—they’re always last—to climb on board. Sadly, gun safety measures will require acts of Congress but, happily, fearful politicians read election returns. Even in the South—even in Texas—lockstep support for gun rights over gun safety no longer cuts clean. Former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke won the Democratic primary and almost won a Senate seat in the Lone Star state despite his fierce support for gun control he defended by citing his conscience and his kids.
The next election will be the first since the NRA crashed and burned. Politicians have to see that they can win not by kowtowing to the group but dancing on its grave. Democrats took the House in 2018 on a variety of issues, prominent among them health care and gun control. Take the victory in 2018 of Rep. Lucy McBath, a gun safety advocate whose 17-year old African-American son was killed by a man with a gun for playing loud music. She prevailed over a Republican incumbent in a district north of Atlanta once held by Newt Gingrich.
We now don’t just have a gay man running for president atop the polls but a married one. I don’t know the exact leap forward for gun safety—McBath and other freshmen winning re-election?—but it’s where the country is headed, and there’s no NRA to hold it back.