Gun control seems impossible to achieve — but there is still hope

Gun control seems impossible to achieve — but there is still hope

Gun control seems impossible to achieve — but there is still hope

It’s a vicious cycle that has become a nightmare. The public is reeling from grief, anger, and
frustration after yet another mass shooting. The shooting at a Uvalde elementary school in
Texas on May 24 was the most serious school shooting since 2012’s Sandy Hook massacre.


It also serves as a reminder of the fact that very little has been done since then to pass
meaningful gun control legislation. In fact, gun laws in the United States have become more
permissive than ever. Since 2020, 24 states have passed strict permitless carry laws. More are
likely to follow despite the resistance of law enforcement and gun safety advocates. This is
despite the fact that research suggests that more permissive laws can lead to increased gun
violence.


Gun control laws appear to be an impossible goal, and the situation looks as grim as it seems.
However, dire does not mean all hope has died. It also doesn’t necessarily mean there is no
progress on gun control and safety issues. Matthew Lacombe is a professor of political science
at Columbia University’s Barnard College. He is also the author of firepower: How NRA turned
Gun Owners into a Political Force. This book examines the rise in gun culture and the role that
gun ownership plays as a political identity.

Vox spoke to Lacombe about this absurd moment. Vox explained why the NRA’s apparent
weakness doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a weaker gun rights movement. This
conversation was lightly edited to improve clarity.

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Many gun control experts believed that Columbine was the beginning of a missing
movement for gun control. They suggested that if we got people to get together, we could
pass federal gun control legislation. Although we have had some momentum since
Sandy Hook and Parkland, it doesn’t seem like enough.


I agree with the first sentence that historically there has been a lack of movement for gun
control. Although we have seen some movement since Sandy Hook I don’t think it can be called
a movement. However, that hasn’t translated into substantive federal gun control measures.


However, I believe there are many ways to measure movement success. Recent efforts for gun
control have made some of these steps. However, it hasn’t yet translated into policy victories
which is the ultimate goal. This is obviously a critical step towards actually creating change.


Some people feel that gun safety advocates have failed to achieve major policy wins in the last
10 years. It’s not my belief that this is the case. It is very difficult to win policy victories at this
moment, given the institutional structure of our lawmaking institutions.


People feel frustration, which is perfectly normal and appropriate. I am merely stating that these
moments if you are interested in gun safety regulations being passed, are not times to feel
defeated. They are moments to rally, keep the pressure up, and try to build power.


If they don’t lead to clear and concise policy changes, most of the incremental steps you
mentioned will be invisible to most people. Could you tell us more?


One thing we’ve seen since Sandy Hook is increased organization-building on behalf of gun
safety — the establishment and growth of a number of different organizations. There has been a
greater level of political participation in favor of gun control.

While most Americans support gun
control regulations historically, the majority of Americans are opposed to them. However, gun
control supporters have mobilized at higher rates than those who support them. We’ve
witnessed a shift in this dynamic and have seen greater levels of support for gun control.


There has been some movement at the state level in certain areas of the country, mostly in blue
states but not all. There has been a shift in Democratic politicians‘ attitudes towards gun control,
even though they are not always as strong as they were ten or fifteen years ago. For example,
Democrats were reluctant to take on the issue in 2008’s presidential primary. In 2020, however,
Democrats tried to outflank one another to the left. These are all signs that there is progress, I’d
say.


However, I believe that in the current moment it would take for strong federal gun regulations to
be passed would be unified Democratic control with 60 Democratic senators or the elimination
of the filibuster. Republicans are very strong in their opposition to gun regulations. We,
therefore, need unified Democratic control of the Senate with a supermajority.

There has been a general perception that the NRA’s grip on the gun rights movement is
weakening after a string of scandals and leadership changes over the past couple of years.
Their structural power is not certain. It is?


A political system where one party is dependent on an organization like NRA may look similar
from the outside. However, another situation exists in which our lawmaking institutions lack the
ability to deal with a wide range of sociopolitical issues.


It could be that the NRA is losing power and that gun control is one of many areas in which
Congress has failed to pass legislation. It could also be that the NRA is still strong. It could also
be that the NRA is organizationally weaker, but gun owners, both as a social group and as a
political constituency, are still politically active.


It is even possible to question the notion of a weakening. We’ve seen extreme permitless
carry laws passed in 24 states since 2020. Many more are likely to follow.


Permitless carry is now the priority. This seems paradoxical. It seems paradoxical that an NRA
is in organizational disarray and you don’t see much change in policy. The NRA’s political
constituency is what gives it its power — a large, active, and politically united group.


This source of power doesn’t depend on the organization’s finances, so it is stable even when
the organization isn’t firing on all cylinders. The gun debate might change if the NRA goes out of
business tomorrow. But the NRA’s supporters, whom it has built up over the years, would not
disappear. They would still be deeply concerned about the issue and other organizations would
fill in that void. The NRA is politically extreme. However, many of the organizations that could fill
this void are to the NRA’s benefit — they’re groups who think the NRA is too weak.


Some gun safety advocacy groups, like Giffords, have launched efforts to get responsible gun
owners onboard. Ryan Busse wrote a book entitled Gunfight. Although he worked in the gun
industry, he isn’t anti-gun. However, he believes there is a lot of room to allow gun owners to
support new regulations that don’t reflect the current status quo. However, I doubt that such an
organization would succeed in attracting people who aren’t currently members of the NRA.
Many people have bought into guns and the wider political worldview surrounding guns.


This suggests that gun rights activism does not merely revolve around preserving the
Second Amendment.


Gun ownership is a part of our social and political identity. Gun owners see guns not as objects
to be used for self-defense or recreation but as symbols of their political and sociopolitical
identities. Gun ownership is not something you would expect to be a significant part of your
political identity.


This identity is intertwined with many other identities gun owners are likely to hold, many of
which are also aligned with Republican partisan identity. The majority of gun owners identify as
gun owners with an evangelical identity or Christian nationalist views. It is not white racial identification. It is a masculine gender identity. All of these are wrapped up with Republican identities, especially those who support Donald Trump.

This alignment can, on the one hand, alienate some people who may otherwise support gun
rights, but are turned off by all those different viewpoints. Its main effect is to deepen the
commitment and widen the scope of issues through which gun ownership is deemed relevant.
Sometimes we lose sight of the larger context in which the gun issue is entangled with many
other important political issues. Many factors influence people’s opinions on gun control.


The Robb Elementary shooting evoked widespread reactions from the public. While we are in a
time of profound political regression regarding abortion rights, “pro-life” lawmakers tend to be
stridently pro-gun in a way that feels hypocritical. What is the reaction of single-issue
anti-abortion voters to such moments? Is it a distraction?


It all depends on how much that pro-life identity, let’s call it an identity and not just an issue
stance, is aligned to Republican partisan identity. If they view Republicans as the “good guys”
on the abortion issue, then it’s unlikely that an event such as [the mass shooting] will change
their voting behavior. They’ll still believe that voting for Republicans is the best thing that they
can do regarding the single issue they care most about. In a poll, or with friends, they might say
that they would be okay if there were more gun regulations, but that doesn’t mean that they will
change their behavior to support that legislation.


What stories have you found to be able to influence people and change their minds about
this topic? Although the Parkland survivors are a compelling story of survival, it is not
enough to make any progress.


I believe that the movement will benefit from these efforts, as well as continue to appeal to
people based on protecting children. This could lead to other unexpected and strange political
relationships and bedfellows. Gun safety advocates should form alliances with other child
protection advocates.


It’s hard to know how many other movements are linked together. This is one way to look at it,
but it can be a bit confusing. There are issues and ideologies at play. Which kinds of issues
seem to fit together politically? Gun regulations that are designed to protect schools could be
seen fitting into a wider range of positions people believe are best for children. However, there
are other political alliances that exist between different social groups. These ties can lead to an
environment of us-versus-them. It can be difficult to overcome these outlooks.


It seems hypocritical from an issue perspective to have a set of positions that are aimed at
protecting children and then not to have the other one that is aimed at protecting them from gun
violence in schools. It’s easy to understand, even though it can be frustrating if you look at the
longer-standing political alliances.


Politicians often think in terms of lost votes and votes won. A few percentage points more public
support for gun control is not going to change the balance. If this were true, we would have seen strong gun safety regulations passed long ago. This is because, since the dawn of public opinion polls, public opinion has always been in favor of gun control. It is more about building a movement to pressure politicians, especially those within the Democratic Party, into prioritizing this issue.

The recent mass shootings at Uvalde and Buffalo are proof that these two regions are
very different politically. New York has different gun laws than Texas. Yet, similar events
are occurring in both states despite having stricter gun laws. Is gun control just a
façade?


Mass shootings are difficult to prevent and can happen anywhere in the country. Sometimes,
gun talk can fall into a trap. The bar that gun control proposals must meet is to prevent mass
shootings. That is not a reasonable standard.


When you think of seat belts, they don’t always prevent car accidents from resulting in fatalities.
They make it less likely for fatalities to occur and, on average, reduce traffic fatalities. They can
happen in places with strong gun regulations, or in places with weaker gun regulations. They
will not disappear, no matter how many new regulations are put in place. My view is that they
should be less common and less deadly when they do happen.


Another thing that happens is mass shootings, especially school shootings serve as focal
events. This issue is given a lot of attention due to its tragic nature. That’s fine. It’s appropriate
for these to be conversation-generating moments. It’s also interesting that despite the fact that
mass shootings are quite common in the US they still make up a small percentage of
gun-related deaths each year. If you support gun safety regulation, this is the moment to speak
out about how mass shootings can be reduced. But you also want to focus more on ways to
reduce daily gun misuse.


Mass shootings can be difficult to predict and are likely to be very difficult to prevent. However,
this is not a sign that gun regulations aren’t effective. This does not mean that they are perfect.


A broad-spectrum overhaul would be required to control the number and timing of these
incidents. This would include mental health, gun manufacturing, training, public safety, as well
as domestic violence training for police officers. Many factors are important in gun control.


No single policy is going to work. There is no magic.


Right. It’s overwhelming. It’s overwhelming. This applies to many other issues, but gun control is
one that many feel hopeless about. Do you see any signs that this is not all doom and gloom?


I believe that gun safety advocacy is stronger than ever. I am in my mid-30s. I’m in my mid-30s.
The people who advocate for gun control have made significant gains in building a movement,
establishing effective organizations, institutionalizing them, and building political power. They
have been determined, dedicated, and savvy. While they have not been able to bring about
federal gun control laws, their efforts have had an impact on changing the debate and making
policy changes at the local level.

The more troubling answer to this question, as with many others, is the fact that it is shaped by
US democracy. This makes it extremely difficult to deal with urgent social issues. It requires
unifying Democratic control of the government, with either the abrogation of filibuster or the
creation of a supermajority within the Senate.


Gun control would have passed if that existed at Sandy Hook. Gun control would be passed if it
existed right now. It’s not possible for this to happen. It is difficult for any political party in a
divided country to win 60 Senate seats. But it is especially hard for Democrats. They are
currently at disadvantage due to how the Senate seats are allocated, gerrymandering, and
geographic partisan sorting. The saddest thing about gun control is, as with many other political
issues, that it depends on democracy reform.


However, it is possible to make changes in politics in times when people feel anxious, scared,
alarmed, and disgusted at world events. This could be an opportunity to focus on this issue in
relation to protecting children and something that all people who are interested in protecting
children should care about. It’s going to be difficult to keep a coalition together if it’s split on so
many other issues.

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What advice do you have for people who want to take care of their children and
communities, and help one another make sense of the moment?


Politically, I’d say get involved and be active at the local level. There are chapters of gun safety
advocacy groups all over the country. It is best to work from the bottom up. Although the road
ahead isn’t necessarily straight or easy, or likely to produce short-term success, I believe that
getting involved would be the best way to channel your frustrations.


You should hug your children. Although it won’t necessarily keep them safe from harm, it can be
scary for all.

Gun control seems impossible to achieve — but there is still hope