Gun control may have to wait

No matter what gun control bill passes the Senate, and it is highly unlikely one will, the National Rifle Association has already won this round. An assault weapons ban is off the table. There is no hope for restricting high-capacity magazines. Now even the once bipartisan idea of expanding background checks is nearly dead.

Democrats and advocates of new gun restrictions are clinging to the hope that Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) could step into the fray to rescue their efforts. They shouldn’t hold their breath. Coburn is under well-publicized pressure from an outfit called Gun Owners of America, which, according to The New York Times, boasted its members “irritated” the senator with constant pleas against background checks but nonetheless succeeded in changing his mind. Democrats have dug up an ad McCain cut in 2000 in which he declares he has evolved on the issue of background checks, and that “with rights come responsibilities.” At this point it won’t be easy to bring Coburn back to the table, and without Coburn, McCain would just be dismissed as having one of his fits of mavericky-ness that was sure to pass. Pro-gun Democrats from states where Mitt Romney crushed President Obama in 2012 are hardly ready to walk that tightrope without some Republican skin in the game.

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Unfortunately, unlike on the issue of immigration, which an increasing number of Republicans have now deemed essential to the party’s survival, there is no upside politically for any concessions on guns from the GOP. National polls may show enormous majorities favor enhanced background checks — even among gun-owning NRA members — but the people Democrats and Republicans hear from the most on the issue are voicing their loud, strong opposition. The coalition backing new laws, at this point, isn’t breaking through.

It’s easy for gun control advocates to criticize Obama for not taking up the fight on time, and for permitting passions from the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn., to dissipate over nearly four months. But the Obama administration was unprepared to mount a political fight over gun control (by comparison, it had worked for months to prepare its legislative and rhetorical assault on immigration reform). It understandably tried to unite stakeholders and minimize dissent, frustration and fractures that would be leaked to the press and ultimately lead to defeat. However, now the time has come for action, and with a filibuster threat and no compromise in sight, it’s hard to see what will come of the fight.

Years from now, the combined forces of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns and former Rep. Gabby Giffords’s (D-Ariz.) and husband Mark Kelly’s Americans for Responsible Solutions, as well as the groups that have battled for years before them, can prevail — but only if they model their efforts on the sophisticated efforts of NRA, just as Republican operatives obsess over the mechanics of the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 and then best them. They can target young voters, use social media and stay organized for what will be a marathon, not a post-Newtown sprint. Once engaged at the grassroots level, integrated into political systems at the local and state level and armed with comparable resources, the advocates for stricter gun safety laws can surely become a match for the NRA and the many other pro-gun groups. But it will take more than a few national television ads, and the billboard Giffords and Kelly are buying in Times Square isn’t going to cut it — but for a few tourists, they are preaching to the choir.

The strategy must be to separate NRA members from their leadership, and convince gun owners to push their members of Congress and the NRA itself to support background checks. It will take years, and many more Americans will die from gun violence. It can happen later, but it sure doesn’t look like it is happening now.


Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.

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