Politics can solve the gun problem
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The political response to this past weekend’s horrific shooting of nightclub patrons in Orlando was entirely predictable. Democrats would call for more gun control — as Obama did in his initial statement responding to the attack. Republicans would resist. And the public would cynically predict nothing to come of it. Such negativity reflects our low expectations for government today. According to recent data, just 18 percent of people approve of Congress’ performance, and only 19 percent of people feel they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right always or most of the time. Are all these people wrong?


Even taking the tortured history of gun control into account, American politics works better — and more often — than people want to admit.


The argument goes that with a Republican Congress and a Democratic president meaningful legislation like gun control has no chance of passage. Admittedly, it is true that fewer laws are being passed nowadays, but the laws that are adopted are also longer, which suggests legislative productivity may not have dipped as much as people think. Indeed, for all the acrimony, last year Congress reached a two-year budget deal, reformed No Child Left Behind, ended the NSA’s bulk surveillance program and made the child tax credit permanent. Hardly a do-nothing Congress. Nor a unique one, either. Research by Yale’s David Mayhew provides strong evidence that significant legislation is equally as likely to be passed under divided government as it is under unified government.

One might counter that Congress is taking action, but only for the benefit of special interests — like, for example, the NRA. All Congress does is provide favors for their contributors, right? Wrong. There is no convincing proof that campaign contributions buy policy. Rather, many political scientists would agree that the most donations buy is time. Some research suggests policymakers respond more to the opinions of the wealthy, but in the aggregate, government takes the wishes of the public seriously. When we want conservative policy, we get it. When we want liberal policy, well, we get that, too.

The fact that Congress serves the public fairly is no surprise because the vast majority of elected officials are faithful public servants. Data from the University of Houston’s Scott Basinger suggests that, on average, only about 12 members of the House will be involved in a new scandal each term. Our lawmakers are not being bought and sold by powerful lobbies.

Others would blame the public for inaction on guns. When it comes to the public, some see an America where citizens are uninterested in fulfilling their democratic responsibilities. That’s not what I see. While small numbers of Americans know basic facts about America’s political system, they still can vote intelligently. As it turns out, all people need is a shortcut — an endorsement, someone’s party affiliation, the position of an industry — and they can vote the same way as our country’s most informed citizens. Even if Americans don’t turn out at high rates, they do participate in other, more meaningful ways. Some 40 percent of us admitted to trying to influence others’ votes in the last presidential election. Finally, the public remains moderate and open to compromise. On most issues the public has stable views for long periods of time. When opinion does change, it does so in a gradual and rational way. Surveys shows that views on gun laws have not changed following single events like mass shootings in places like Aurora, Colo. and Tucson, Ariz.

Gun control is a tough issue. Although there is broad support for some minor changes, like expanded background checks, the public remains wary of a major redefinition of the government’s regulation of firearms. According to Pew Data from last year, the public is split about 50-50 between those who think it’s more important to control gun ownership and those who think it’s more important to protect gun rights. My point would be that the government’s struggles dealing with this one important issue are understandable, and also not representative of our political system at large. American politics might seem ugly at times, but it works pretty well. Issues get addressed. Opinions are heard. The public is competent and capable. 

Action on guns is needed. Sensible people recognize this. What I want people to realize is that there is more than enough reason to believe that our political system can, and ultimately will, do something about these problem. I know this positive view of American politics may not make headlines. It may not be good material for John Oliver or Samantha Bee, but it is a truth worth believing in.

David O’Connell is assistant professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and is the author of “God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion.” His research focuses on religious politics, presidential speech and political campaigns.