Turn on virtually any talk show heard or viewed in the mainstream media this past week and it’s clear that most of the chattering classes are convinced that the Newtown massacre marks a turning point in the history of American culture. According to this narrative, the country’s understandable shock and horror over the slaughter of innocents at the Sandy Hook Elementary School is the equivalent of Pearl Harbor or 9/11 in that it has fundamentally altered the political correlation of forces that has prevented gun control. More to the point, they believe this sea change is so profound that it will effectively silence advocates of gun rights so as to render them incapable of stopping whatever it is that Vice President Biden’s task force comes up with.
The principal target of this effort is, of course, the National Rifle Association that sensibly stayed silent for several days after Newtown and has only just started to make its voice heard. Most liberals are assuming that the low profile the group has had since then is just the start of a new era in which its influence will be curtailed. The assumption is that anger about Newtown is so great and the impulse to try to do something to prevent another mass shooting is so widely supported that the NRA will no longer dictate to Congress. But, as the Pew poll cited earlier by Alana shows, support for gun rights may yet survive Newtown.
More than any other lobby or cause, the NRA is the boogeyman of the American liberal imagination. To listen to liberals talking about it is to hear a portrait of an organization that treats errant members of Congress the way heretics and Jews were handled by the Spanish Inquisition. More than that, many liberals speak as if it is primarily a profit-making entity funded by gun manufacturers that has imposed a bizarre reign of terror on an unwilling populace.
Yet even though the NRA is assuming a much lower profile these days, the idea that it and its 4 million members will simply go away or be drowned out by the chorus of outrage over the murder of 1st graders is based more on liberal ideology than hardheaded political analysis.
It is true that the chances of a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban that expired several years ago has just gone from nonexistent to quite possible. Indeed, it is more than likely that Biden will propose something that will have far wider scope than the previous bill since the rifle used by the murderer in Newtown was legal even under Connecticut’s assault weapons law.
It is entirely possible that Americans are ready for a ban on military-style weapons, especially those that fire large amounts of ammunition in a short time. Many are also ready for a stronger background check system for gun purchasers.
That these ideas are things that the NRA has previously successfully opposed is, as I have written before, evidence that the group regards any regulation, no matter how reasonable, as merely the thin edge of the wedge of a larger agenda whose goal is the effective repeal of the Second Amendment. In this sense they are like pro-abortion groups that fight furiously against even the most reasonable restrictions on the procedure such as parental consent because they also not unreasonably believe that such bills are merely a prelude to an attempt to repeal Roe v. Wade.
The effect of Newtown will be to point out to the NRA those areas where they have overreached. But the expectation that supporters of gun control can do more than that is highly unrealistic.
After all even Joe Manchin, the senator who has become the poster child for NRA members who have had second thoughts about the issue in the aftermath of Newtown, has yet to say what gun control measure he will actually support in any of his seemingly innumerable press interviews.
What liberals who think Newtown means that gun rights can be rolled back will re-learn in the coming weeks is that the NRA’s influence is not so much a matter of money as it is of votes. For all of its bad press, the NRA is the living illustration of democracy, not influence peddling. Its voice has carried weight in Congress because it speaks for 4 million members who share its concerns about the threat to gun rights. That concern is currently overshadowed by anger about Newtown and the widespread though largely mistaken conviction that there is a way to legislate such tragedies out of existence. But it won’t take long for the liberal war on guns to wake up the NRA and its members and far more numerous sympathizers.
As Pete wrote earlier today, the demonization of gun supporters by media figures such as Piers Morgan illustrates the politics of a moment of outrage, not the sort of fundamental shift in American culture that would be required for liberals to do more than enact measures on the margins of the issue, such as assault weapons. Indeed, the comparisons to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 should prove instructive to those who think the NRA is on its last legs. Though both those events did transform American politics in the short term, in the long run the effects were minimal.
Try as they might, those seeking to capitalize on Newtown can’t make America a country that no longer thinks that gun rights are the guarantee of democracy. That is a belief that is not shared by any other modern democracy, even a country like Israel, where gun ownership is widespread. But like other stubborn elements of American exceptionalism, it is not the sort of thing that will be erased even by an event as horrific as Newtown.