If Democrats want gun control, they must first concede defeat

Congressional Democrats, ex-presidents, A-list celebrities, and the public can all beat the drum for meaningful gun control, but it’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future. This is a harsh reality gun control advocates must accept.    

Republicans control the White House and Senate. The National Rifle Association controls the Republicans. During the 2016 election alone, the NRA spent $54 million to ensure that Republicans captured the presidency and Congress.

Don’t be fooled by the pundits who say NRA donations to members of Congress are “paltry.” The NRA’s influence does not come primarily from direct contributions. The NRA’s stranglehold comes from campaign ads and other lobbying funneled to lawmakers of their choice — lawmakers who oppose gun control.

ADVERTISEMENT

I considered delaying my retirement from the Department of Justice when given the opportunity to work on the prosecution of the shooting rampage at Los Angeles airport in 2013. I was moved by the idea of being a drop in the bucket that would eventually wash the stain of GOP complacency and replace it with a wave of gun control that would make us all safer. 

Eventually I realized there was nothing complacent about the Republican effort to kill any reasonable limits on possession and use of guns. It’s all about the money — and the power it brings. When the rot is traced to its roots, its path looks like this: The NRA is a wealthy organization whose existence depends on the unbridled proliferation of guns; Members of Congress have an endless need for money to maintain their political power because they are always preparing for — or actually in — an election cycle. 

While perspective dictates who is parasite and who is host, the NRA and Congress each have something the other wants. The NRA gives financial support to members of Congress, and in return the NRA is shielded from statutory annihilation, in the guise of patriotic support of the Second Amendment.

Public outcry from the El Paso and Dayton shootings may bring a superficial legislative win as a snack to quiet the rumblings. Last week saw bipartisan support for “red flag” laws that allow a judge to confiscate a person’s guns when the person poses an imminent threat. But Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerLewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' Appropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid Colorado candidates vying to take on Gardner warn Hickenlooper they won't back down MORE (D-N.Y.) is already fearful that Republicans will only agree to watered-down legislation that will have little impact. And Friday, John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoIf Democrats want gun control, they must first concede defeat Conway: Republican concerns about gun reform 'all reconcilable' Five proposals Congress is eyeing after mass shootings MORE (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, expressed skepticism that “things have changed much” from the historical failure of gun control legislation to make it through the GOP-controlled Senate.

The failure to pass meaningful gun control legislation is not for lack of trying. The Democrat-controlled House passed a gun control bill earlier this year, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAre Democrats turning Trump-like? House Democrat calls for gun control: Cities can ban plastic straws but 'we can't ban assault weapons?' Churches are arming and training congregants in response to mass shootings: report MORE (R-Ky.) is blocking a Senate vote. And though McConnell last week said expanded background checks and red flag laws would be “front and center” when the Senate reconvenes in September, this is the man who held off a vote on President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDick Cheney to attend fundraiser supporting Trump reelection: report Forget conventional wisdom — Bernie Sanders is electable 2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care MORE’s Supreme Court nomination for a year. Mitch McConnell knows how to wait out a storm. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Last year’s hurricane was the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. The galvanized momentum behind the student survivors, who heart-wrenchingly advocated for gun control, did not succeed in any notable way. It is a sad testament to GOP tenacity. 

You can only say “This time is different” so many times, before acknowledging that it’s not. 

It is GOP self-preservation that drives the symbiosis between members of Congress and the NRA. Unless campaign finance reform were to cut a heavy swath through American ‘politics as usual,’ the carnage, impassioned speeches, and accusatory finger pointing will continue to bring only “thoughts and prayers” — the GOP platitude that works hard to appear empathetic while simultaneously protecting its meal ticket.

If gun control stands a chance, it will come the old-fashioned way — a power grab. Democrats will have to win control of the presidency and the Senate, while retaining the House. Gun control, as a 2020 campaign issue, can help, but it’s time for a strategic change.

Democratic candidates need to shift their message from tirades that seek to publicly shame Congressional Republicans into action. Instead, Democrats must concede they don’t stand a chance at securing meaningful gun control — until they hold Congress and the White House. 

ADVERTISEMENT

There are moderate Republican and Independent voters who are sickened by the gun carnage that has become a television mainstay of American life. If any issue can transcend political affiliation, it is a ban on assault weapons. The sooner the narrative is re-written — and the public is encouraged to give up on the idea of a GOP awakening — the sooner Democrats can get a foothold into the idea that they are the only hope for reasonable gun legislation. This must be part of the Democratic platform and every candidate needs to be in lock-step with the strategic twist. 

Two points of caution.

Even tough gun control legislation will not extinguish gun violence. If Democrats portray it as a panacea, there will be a swift backlash after the inevitable shooting that follows a legislative success. 

Banning assault weapons must be discussed as one of many changes, along with: “red flag” laws; financial support for a domestic terrorism task force; universal background checks; and increased availability of mental health treatment.

Finally, Dems need to quit pandering to a base that craves a full gun ban. Democratic voters for whom the phrase “a well regulated Militia” sparks a tingle down under must be convinced to accept that the legal debate about gun control is largely over.

There is a group of voters who are convincible, but who support reasonable gun ownership. If Democrats want to see a bluer shade of purple, they need to quell the fears that they are coming for all guns. Every call for a ban on assault weapons needs to be sandwiched between these two phrases: “The Supreme Court has said the constitution protects every citizen’s right to bear arms;” and “The Court is the final word on this issue and anyone who wants to deprive a citizen of his constitutional rights will have to deal with me.”   

There is an undeniable satisfaction in “hair-on-fire” speeches that rail against Congressional Republicans — and the president — for epitomizing the “pay for play” swamp monsters Mr. Trump promised to run out of government. But Democrats have subscribed to that playbook for years, and it’s done no good. 

"Insanity" is repeating the same course of action and expecting a different outcome. It’s time to end the madness.

Michael J. Stern was a federal prosecutor for more than 24 years with the Department of Justice in Detroit and Los Angeles, prosecuting high-profile crimes, including conspiracy cases related to international drug trafficking and organized crime. He has since worked on the indigent defense panel for the federal courts. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelJStern1.