Americans say they want meaningful national gun controls. But they don’t want them badly enough —or they’d already have them.
This is what I mean:
Sure, voters tell pollsters Congress should pass legislation to toughen up background checks on gun buyers. Most even want to ban military-style assault weapons.
But gun control is far down the list of voters’ priorities. Many other policy issues rank higher: immigration, jobs, schools, climate change….
So after every shooting massacre, when more innocent people are murdered by some wacko with a firearm designed for mass killing, there’s tough talk, screaming and flailing for a few days. Then everyone calms down and snoozes until the next slaughter.
Politicians —mainly Republicans and moderate Democrats in Congress —don’t feel constant pressure from gun control supporters. These voters have been firing with cap pistols.
But the other side is rigidly committed. The gun zealots —those mesmerized by the power of firearms —tend to be “single-issue” voters who are inspired by the National Rifle Assn. Their No. 1 litmus test for any candidate is the politician’s position on gun rights.
Most Republicans and many moderate Democrats are scared silly and timidly vote against virtually all meaningful gun controls. That is, unless the congressional leader is a Republican, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Then the frightened politicians are spared from voting at all because the leader blocks the bill from the floor.
At least, that’s the way it has always been.
There was one grand exception, in California in 1989. Republican Gov. George Deukmejian bucked the NRA and signed the nation’s first assault weapons ban.
“Iron Duke” acted after a young, racist drifter armed with an AK-47 assault rifle shot up a schoolyard in Stockton, killing five Southeast Asian immigrant children. The gunman fired more than 100 rounds, wounding 30 other kids —mostly minorities —and one teacher before killing himself.
That set California on a three-decade path of enacting arguably the toughest gun controls in the nation —thanks largely to increasing Democratic power in Sacramento and at the ballot box.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) managed to pass the first nationwide assault weapons ban in 1994 and have the bill signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton. But the ban expired 10 years later when Republican George W. Bush was president and was never renewed.
Feinstein paid a steep political price for angering the gun worshipers. She barely won reelection that year.
One campaign episode illustrated the hostility of single-issue, pro-gun voters toward politicians who push for firearms regulation.
On a Chico sidewalk in the Sacramento Valley, there was a white male in jeans and a girl of around 8, presumably his daughter. As Feinstein stepped out of a car, the man took the child by the hand, kneeled beside her and pointed up close at the senator:
“Look,” he told the girl, “that’s what you don’t want to grow up to be like.”
Several dozen gun devotees were nearby protesting the assault weapons ban.
That’s the nasty environment long faced by politicians who dare vote for gun control.
But some politicos say they detect a changing atmosphere after the latest mass shootings at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, an El Paso Walmart and a strip of Dayton, Ohio, nightclubs that left at least 34 dead and dozens more injured. Again, the guns used were military-style assault weapons.
Longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, notes that Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine called on the GOP-led state Legislature on Tuesday to pass a bill requiring background checks for nearly all gun sales.
“If Mike DeWine is calling for background checks, that tells me the political calculus is changing,” Shrum says.
Republican consultant Mike Murphy, who has worked on six presidential campaigns, says “the NRA’s bite in primary elections isn’t what it used to be. They benefit from a reputation a little different than reality.”
Murphy says it would be smart politically for McConnell to call the Senate back from summer vacation and allow it to vote on a House-passed bill to strengthen federal background checks. President Trump has vaguely hinted that he might support the legislation.
If Congress doesn’t pass a background check bill, Murphy says, Democrats will hammer Republicans on the issue in the 2020 election.
Pollster Mark Baldassare, who heads the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, believes that the repetition of horrific mass shootings is “beginning to have a cumulative effect” on voters and hardening their support for gun controls.
“When people feel vulnerable about their own safety, then it becomes a top-tier issue,” the pollster says. “That’s when people demand change….
“But I don’t know that we’re there yet.”
Right. We’ve heard all this optimistic talk before after mass shootings and nothing has happened in Congress.
Voters need to demand change —on policy and, when necessary, congressional membership.
“If you want to change votes in the House and Senate, you’re going to need to change who’s in the House and Senate,” says Garen J. Wintemute, an emergency room physician and UC Davis firearms researcher.
“That’s exactly what you have to do,” Shrum says. “Voters have to say, ‘Goodbye. I don’t care if I agree with you on something else, you need to go.’”
That’s a single-issue voter. Until there are more of them on the gun control side, mass killings will continue semiautomatically.
Political columnist George Skelton has covered government and politics for more than 50 years and for The Times since 1974.