The endless tragedy of gun violence
In a few minutes, you will finish reading this and click to the next column. That is everything you need to know about why more than 100 Americans have been killed in 45 mass shootings in the last month and Congress will not pass anything meaningful to reduce future carnage. After each of the tragic episodes, the gun lobby counts on you to turn the page and move from outrage to sadness to distraction to forgetting.
Remember the three people shot dead in a tavern in Kenosha? The nine killed in Indianapolis? Or the six shot dead in Rock Hill? The ten killed in Boulder? Or the eight shot dead in Atlanta? Each of these episodes is part of the longest running television drama in the country with breaking news on our screens, the grainy videos of police cars parked near crime scenes, and the press briefing by the police chief and mayor speaking into a nest of microphones. Then come the tweets and angry demands for Congress to do something. But then the images recede, forced to the back of our minds, replaced by the next story in the news cycle.
The gun industry survives, while so far this year, over 12,500 of us have not. I tried to explain the strategy from behind the scenes when I wrote “Big Guns,” a satirical novel of the ironclad grip the gun industry has on many members of Congress. It was not exactly a bestseller, but it was decently received. During the book tour, there was one interview that stood out. A reporter from National Public Radio criticized the book for being too snarky, and not giving us hope that Congress will tackle gun violence. “You want a happy ending?” I thought. “That would transform the book from parody to fantasy. Give me a break.”
Congress will remain frozen because a narrow segment of single issue gun advocates never forget, while the rest of us hardly remember. It is called voter intensity. As I wrote the novel, I would listen to Republicans admit that if they voted for even a minor gun safety bill, for instance more background checks, it would, no pun intended, trigger a primary. You can politically survive votes to raise income taxes, cut popular programs, and send our kids to war. But votes to stop a deranged individual from buying a semiautomatic weapon? It would be politically fatal.
Meanwhile, the 80 percent of Americans who want measures like stronger background checks simply forgive and forget when lawmakers cave to the 20 percent who oppose those laws. I remember a House appropriations markup when Democrats went through the ritual of trying to add firearm safety riders to various agency funding bills. One was “no fly no buy,” the sensible proposal that if you are deemed too dangerous to get on a plane, then you should not be able to easily purchase a firearm. It was defeated by mostly party line votes. One Republican colleague later bemoaned the fact that he had to vote against the key amendment despite supporting it himself like most of his own constituents. That vote would have fueled the small core of single issue gun advocates against him.
It is not just Republicans. One Democrat no longer in the House told me this story. In the depth of the Great Recession, he toured counties across his sprawling rural district. He drove into one area and observed a line of people at the local government office waiting to file the applications for unemployment and other benefits. When he took some time to speak to his constituents in that line, he heard no complaints about the economy or the possible foreclosure of their farms and homes. But they did say to him, “Do not let the Democrats take our guns away.”
The problem of gun violence has been exacerbated by gerrymandering and residential sorting patterns over time. Districts and even entire states have become either redder and bluer. The moderates capable of reaching compromise on gun safety measures have been marginalized or, like Peter King, the Republican from New York who sponsored numerous gun safety measures, they have just decided to leave Congress.
The House has passed some bills that would enact stronger background checks on potential gun buyers and give federal investigators more time to vet anyone flagged. These bills mainly address loopholes in current gun safety laws. But do not get your hopes up. During those book tours, I was often asked, “Will you write a sequel?” My answer is no because it writes itself every few days in another report of another mass shooting. It is our never ending drama and will be until those of us who want change decide that we will not forget or forgive in the next election.
Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.
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