Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
“All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” President Obama declared during a White House press conference on April 17, 2013.
Obama was lamenting the defeat of a Senate bill on background checks for gun purchases crafted by Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey, an effort to pass something in the wake of the massacre of 26 people, 20 of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. A broader gun-safety measure had already stalled in the Senate, and staff from the National Rifle Association had actually helped put the amendment together. The thinking was if this couldn’t pass, nothing could.
That presumption hung over the discussion this week, as the nation grappled with a similarly horrific slaughter at Uvalde Elementary School in Texas and our failure to take action to prevent these tragedies in the years since Sandy Hook.
The Manchin-Toomey legislation — which would have expanded gun-purchase background checks from gun shops to private sales, with a loophole for family-and-friends transactions — was very popular. A Pew survey taken shortly after the vote showed the proposal commanded 81 percent support from the public, with nearly equal levels of support from Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Yet it fell victim to the filibuster; it won 54 Senate votes, six short of the necessary supermajority; 42 Republicans and four Democrats blocked it.
One would think that the Senate’s rejection of a popular effort to address the nightmare of gun violence would have become a powerful issue in the 2014 midterms, which were held less than a year after Sandy Hook. It wasn’t. I should know: I wrote an entire book on the 2014 election, and gun policy barely registered as a campaign issue. A later academic study of that election showed that only 4 percent of campaign ads for the entire 2013–14 cycle mentioned guns, and a majority of them promoted gun rights.
The Republican Party that was largely responsibly for rejecting the Manchin-Toomey amendment won big in 2014, particularly in Senate races. The GOP gained nine net Senate seats, winning control of the chamber for the first time since 2006. No Republican senator lost. Though a majority of voters then, as today, said they favor stricter gun laws, they did not punish lawmakers opposed to even the most anodyne policies to address gun violence.
After the latest spree of massacres, another bipartisan effort is under way in the Senate to take some kind of action on gun violence, possibly around red-flag laws. Senators have reiterated that they will not drop the filibuster for this or any other issue, so any bill would likely require the support of all Senate Democrats and ten Republicans. That may still be impossible, given the steadily increasing grip that Second Amendment absolutism has over the GOP and their evidence-based belief that voters will not hold them accountable in November for rejecting efforts to curb gun violence.
But today’s political landscape is significantly different than it was when the Manchin-Toomey proposal failed. Though sweeping new gun regulations certainly seem out of the question, there is reason to hope that Congress can make progress on sensible gun regulations in the near future. Here’s why.
There are multiple indicators that younger millennials and members of Generation Z, who have grown up experiencing regular trauma from mass shootings, especially in schools, could make gun violence a bigger issue in the political discourse. A Harvard Institute of Politics survey in 2018 found that 70 percent of likely voters under 30 that year believed gun laws should be stricter, up from the 49 percent who favored that view in 2013 soon after the Sandy Hook massacre. As one young activist wrote in Seattle University’s student paper last year, fear and anger over school shootings has shaped an entire cohort of new and future voters:
I was never alive to see a time before active shooter drills were set in place. We were trained to hide from a gun before we even knew what the object was. My generation was exposed to the idea of death so early on because we needed to understand the true harm of a gun for our own safety. We had to learn quickly that at any moment someone could walk into our school, a place we were told was our “safe space” from home, and hurt any one of us because it was that easy for someone to get a gun.
At a time when Democrats desperately need young voters to turn out in midterm elections, where the electorate typically skews old and white, this generation’s intense feelings on gun violence could make it a more salient campaign issue.
Though Democrats are known as the party of gun control, they’ve historically avoided making it a major campaign issue because strategists have been consumed with defending candidates trying to win in small-town and rural areas. This has been especially true in the south and west, where insensitivity to gun rights is often deemed a sign of cultural cluelessness or elitism. There’s a reason that so many Democratic candidates in these areas over the years have run ads showing themselves brandishing or even firing guns and have valued an NRA endorsement like it’s a holy talisman.
One by-product of the “sorting out” of geographical locations by party and ideology in recent years is that culturally conservative gun-loving people open to voting Democratic are essentially extinct. Accordingly, there are fewer and fewer viable Democratic candidates who need to be “protected” by national-party reticence on gun issues. As Daniel Nass noted in 2020, nearly a quarter of Democratic candidates for Congress in 2010 received “A” ratings from the NRA, signifying a “solidly pro-gun candidate.” In 2020, that number had dropped to just one: Minnesota congressman Collin Peterson, who promptly lost his seat that November.
Going forward, there is less and less reason for Democrats to downplay sensible positions on gun issues as national campaign priorities. The cost of a “backlash” from gun-rights enthusiasts is becoming lower than the potential benefits of a “frontlash” rewarding renewed activism.
There was a time in living memory when progress on federal civil-rights legislation seemed as hopeless as a congressional gun-safety measure seems today. A historic breakthrough occurred with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which formally ended de jure segregation. But southern states resisted its implementation, and just as importantly, racist politicians protected themselves by refusing to extend voting rights to Black citizens. It appeared another long slog of activism would be necessary to produce federal voting-rights legislation … until suddenly public opinion was aroused by television coverage of peaceful voting-rights protesters being brutalized by armed police officers in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. Just eight days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson convened a joint session of Congress to hear his call for voting-rights legislation. By May, the Senate filibuster was broken, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 soon followed.
It’s unlikely that the nightmare images from Uvalde will generate a similar galvanization of public opinion, much less dislodge congressional obstruction of measures against gun violence. It’s possible, however, that beneath the surface, an accumulation of nightmare images from schools and shopping malls and college campuses and movie theaters and churches will together produce a “Selma moment” — a paradigm shift in which the impossible suddenly becomes possible. But political leadership as well as public support will be necessary.
Right now, Democrats are headed toward a bad midterm election in which they will almost certainly lose their fragile governing “trifecta” and perhaps control of both houses of Congress, along with key governorships. It is very unlikely that the economy or global developments will give Democrats any kind of lift. But at the same time, they enjoy majority support on issues such as voting rights, abortion rights, and gun violence, where the GOP and its judicial allies are mustering their institutional power to turn back the clock. The only way out of midterm peril is to change the current political equation while giving a discouraged Democratic base a reason to turn out in November. A sustained assault on the Senate filibuster linked to all these issues could help educate Democratic voters as to why their party has yet to deliver on its promises, while building public pressure to force the GOP to submit to majority sentiment.
It’s worth a try; elected Democrats have nothing to lose, and a rising generation of voters sick of gun violence may demand action.