America goes gun-crazy after every mass shooting.
Handgun sales rise markedly, even if the attackers strike overseas. The percent of airtime devoted to gun control surges on the cable news channels, holding there for days, sometimes weeks, and Web searches on the topic climb ever higher. The usual pro-gun and anti-gun groups mobilize to drive public opinion, and support for stricter gun control laws increases. The National Rifle Association retreats to its bunker until the storm passes, which it always does, and we return to the usual.
In the aftermath of the Parkland killings, these patterns have asserted themselves. But as the wheel turns once more, something new has crept into the national disputation. Call it a mirage or attribute it to liberal wishful thinking, but the gun control argument has found new grounding in the culture and is asserting a firmer grip in political circles. Even President Donald Trump, who romanced the NRA during the campaign and was elected with its help, sounds like a gun-grabber these days.
Is the implausible on its way to becoming inevitable?
The Parkland shooting was no more deadly than the previous attacks, and it was hardly the first time a school had fallen into a killer’s cross hairs. It wasn’t even the first mass shooting of the Trump era—gunmen recently struck Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Las Vegas, extinguishing a total of 83 lives. That this shooting, as opposed to the others, would move public and political opinion comes as a surprise. Republicans representing competitive suburban districts have signaled they might vote for new gun measures such as higher age limits, stronger background checks, closer police monitoring of mentally ill or menacing individuals. Scores of corporations have distanced themselves from the NRA, even though it has caused their unfavorable ratings to rise. CNN staged and broadcast a two-hour “town hall“ gun control discussion that pit the parents of the victims and the survivors of the Parkland shooting against Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and the NRA’s Dana Loesch, and which, to my eyes and ears, redounded to the gun control advocates’ advantage. Walmart, Fred Meyer and Dick’s Sporting Goods have raised the minimum age to buy ammunition to 21 and Dick’s gathered headlines by announcing it would no longer sell assault-style rifles (although cynics pointed out that the company did the same in 2013, only to recommence sales later).
If gun control views have shifted recently or momentum seems to have moved to the gun-controllers’ side, we should give the president some of the credit or the blame, depending on where you stand on the issue. Trump hasn’t gone over to the gun-controllers’ side—he’s still politically aligned with the NRA. On Wednesday, at a meeting of bipartisan legislators, he chimed that “no bigger fan” of the NRA exists. But as with many issues, Trump’s outpouring sought to conform to what’s politically expedient or harmonize with whatever his last confidant told him. Once a gun rights stalwart with a concealed-carry permit, he opened the Overton Window at the session and started throwing guns out of it. He announced himself ready to raise the age-limit on the purchase of assault-type rifles, and put the NRA on notice that he might defy it on some issues. “They have less power over me,” he said, than they have over the legislators present. He got everybody’s attention when he urged authorities to dispense with the legal niceties in seizing guns from dangerous individuals. “Take the guns first, go through due process second,” the president said.
All this came after he had already endorsed the regulation of “bump stocks” and strengthening background checks. Being Trump, he has also zigged in the other direction, calling for armed teachers and the end of gun-free zones. But his willingness to tap the reservoirs of sorrow and fury unleashed by the Parkland shooting by holding a “listening session” with survivors and parents of victims proves his devotion to political fluidity. The session might mark the first time Trump has ever absorbed citizen anger without lashing back. Whether you like this president or not, it’s undeniable that he’s confused everybody where he stands on guns now. But at the same time, he’s provided a visible and national forum for the grievances of the victims of gun violence, giving the movement a boost. Does he know his contradictory statements have eroded the gun-rights battlements?
If giving Trump credit for the national softening of gun control views turns your stomach, try swallowing this: Maybe the gun control fervor is a byproduct of his presidency, a common ground for all the political factions that oppose him. Liberals, hankering for a political victory after losing to Trump on the budget, taxes, immigration, judicial nominations and various Obama administration rules and regulations, have found in gun control an issue that unites and energizes the anti-Trump factions like no other. That Trump has made unusually squishy noises on guns has only emboldened them. How difficult can it be to beat Trump on the issue, they think, if he’s not dug in on it?
In a recent thread, Duke University professor Kristin Goss noted that gun control advocates have been building their movement behind the scenes since Columbine. A “mass of survivors and families” now exceeds 1,000, and they’ve been organizing on a state-by-state level. Billionaire philanthropists, such as Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, and various progressive organizations have staked the movement. Articulate students, especially those from the Parkland school, who have availed themselves to both traditional media and social media to inspire their peers and parents and bystanders to take “action” against guns.
Setting aside your views on gun control, you’ve got to admit the Parkland students have given the issue a human face like never before. It’s not that the other killings—Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Navy Yard, Orlando, Fort Hood, San Bernardino, Charleston, Las Vegas, Newtown, Sutherland Springs, Killeen, et al.—were faceless. Quite the opposite. Grieving, sympathetic faces abounded at every one of those killing grounds, but for a constellation of reasons, some unknowable, they have failed to light the media flame the way the innocent, youthful Parkland kids have.
Only weathermen, gamblers and fools make predictions, so I won’t forecast that the sons and daughters of Parkland are about to overturn the gun laws and “solve” the gun violence problem. Even if whatever passes for Trump’s “gun agenda”—or something more radical—were to pass tomorrow, America would still be home to some 300 million guns. But circumstances have unfrozen the issue. The flux reminds me of how quickly marijuana went from an illegal substance to a legal one, and of how rapidly the opposition to gay marriage collapsed inside the Democratic Party. From my vantage point, the children’s crusade—with an unexpected assist from Trump—seems ready to move the mountain.