Politics

Why gun control feels out of reach — and why there’s still hope

By now, it’s a vicious, horrific cycle: In the wake of yet another mass shooting, the public reels from a combination of grief, outrage, and frustration. The shooting at an Uvalde, Texas, elementary school on May 24 is the worst school shooting since the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012.

It’s also a reminder of how little has changed since then to enact meaningful gun control legislation. In fact, if anything, gun laws around the country have become radically more permissive: Since 2020, 24 states have passed extreme permitless carry laws, with more likely to follow, despite strong resistance from law enforcement, the public, and gun safety advocates — and despite research suggesting that more permissive laws lead to more gun violence.

Gun control laws seem to be an impossible goal to achieve, and the situation is essentially as dire as it looks. But dire doesn’t mean all hope is lost — and it doesn’t mean that there’s been no forward movement on issues of gun control and gun safety. Matthew Lacombe teaches political science at Columbia University’s Barnard College. He’s also the author of Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners Into a Political Force, which looks at the rise of gun culture and the role of gun ownership as a political identity.

Lacombe spoke with Vox to help make sense of this senseless moment, including why a seemingly weakened NRA doesn’t mean a weakened gun rights movement. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

After Columbine, many gun control experts seemed to argue that there was a missing gun control movement, and that if we just got people together and got them to organize and be proactive that we could pass gun control legislation at a federal level. But I feel like we’ve had that momentum since Sandy Hook, and certainly since Parkland, but that movement obviously hasn’t been enough.

I would agree with the first part that historically there’s been a missing movement for gun control. I also agree that we’ve seen something that we probably should and can call a movement since Sandy Hook, but that hasn’t translated into substantial federal-level gun control measures.

Having said that, I do think there are different ways you could measure movement success and that the more recent efforts on behalf of gun control have achieved some of those steps. It just hasn’t translated into policy victories yet, which is the ultimate goal and which is obviously a crucial step in actually creating change.

I think some folks feel like because there haven’t been major policy wins yet that the efforts of gun safety advocates over the past 10 or so years have all been for naught. I’m not sure that’s the case. I think that winning policy victories, especially in the current moment and given the institutional structure of our lawmaking institutions, is really hard.

The frustration people feel is totally justified and appropriate. My point is just that moments like these, if you’re interested in passing gun safety regulations, are not moments to feel hopeless, but moments to keep rallying, to keep up pressure, and to try to keep building power.

Most of those incremental steps you mention are probably invisible to most people if they don’t result in clear, concise policy changes that people can point to. Can you say more about them?

One thing we’ve seen since Sandy Hook is increased organization-building on behalf of gun safety — the establishment and growth of a number of different organizations. We’ve also seen a greater balance in terms of political participation on behalf of gun control. Although most Americans have historically favored gun control regulations, the minority of Americans who oppose them have historically mobilized on behalf of that view at higher rates than gun control supporters. But we’ve seen a shift in that dynamic, and we’ve seen higher levels of sustained participation on behalf of gun control.

We’ve seen movement on the state level in certain places in the country, mostly blue states but not always. We’ve also seen a shift in which Democratic politicians, albeit imperfectly, are more willing to take strong stances in favor of gun control than they were 10 or 15 years ago. So, for example, Democrats in the 2008 presidential primary were reluctant to really take on this issue, whereas in the 2020 primary, we saw Democrats trying to sort of out-flank each other to the left. I would say that those are all signs of progress.

Having said that, I think in this current moment, what it would take for strong federal-level regulations on guns to pass would be unified Democratic control of government with 60 Democratic senators, or the filibuster being abolished. Republicans are pretty entrenched in their opposition to gun regulations, such that we basically need unified Democratic control with a supermajority in the Senate.

After a series of scandals and leadership changes in the last couple years, there’s been a general perception that the NRA’s hold over the gun rights movement has weakened. I’m not sure that’s true in terms of their structural power. Is it?

From the outside, a political system in which one party is beholden to an organization like the NRA might seem similar to another situation in which our lawmaking institutions are ill-equipped for dealing with a range of pressing sociopolitical issues.

So it could be the case that the NRA’s power is waning, and that the lack of movement on gun control is just another instance across a broad range of issues in which the federal government has not been able to pass urgently needed legislation. Or it could be the case that the NRA still holds strong. Or it could be a third situation in which the NRA organizationally is substantially weakened, but gun owners — as a social group, as a political group, and as a Republican-leaning constituency — still remain really politically active.

I would even question the idea that there has been a weakening. Since 2020, we’ve seen 24 states pass extreme permitless carry laws, with many more likely to follow.

Permitless carry is the new priority. It seems paradoxical, right? You have an NRA that is itself organizationally in disarray, and yet you see not much changing in terms of policy. The NRA’s power is a product of the political constituency that it’s developed — a large, active, and politically unified group.

That source of power isn’t related to the organization’s money, so it holds steady even when the organization isn’t firing on all operating cylinders. If the NRA went out of business tomorrow, the gun debate would change, but the supporters that the NRA has cultivated over time would not simply disappear. They would continue to care deeply about this issue, and other organizations would fill that void. And although the NRA is objectively politically extreme, a lot of the organizations that might fill that void are actually to the NRA’s right — they’re groups that think the NRA has been too weak.

There are efforts that have been launched by some gun safety advocacy organizations, such as Giffords, to get responsible gun owners on board. Ryan Busse recently wrote a book called Gunfight. He worked in the gun industry and he’s not an anti-gun person, but he thinks there’s a lot of room for gun owners to support additional regulations that aren’t currently reflecting the status quo. But I’m not sure that sort of organization would be successful at pulling in people left behind by the NRA, because where the NRA continues to weaken, a lot of folks have really bought into, not just liking guns, but the broader political worldview around guns.

That suggests that the ideology behind gun rights activism is no longer purely about preserving the Second Amendment.

We think about gun ownership as a social and political identity. Gun owners don’t just see guns as objects that might be used for self-defense or recreation, but instead as symbols of who they are politically and their broader set of sociopolitical beliefs. Gun ownership is not something that you would automatically expect to be a salient political identity.

This identity intertwines with other identities that gun owners are likely to hold, many of which are also aligned with Republican partisan identity. For the majority of gun owners, their social identity as a gun owner might align with their evangelical identity or with views that have been described as Christian nationalist. It has to do with white racial identity, it has to do with masculine gender identity, all of which are wrapped up in Republican identity, particularly Republicans with strong support for Donald Trump.

On the one hand, that alignment alienates some people who might otherwise support gun rights but who are turned off by all those other viewpoints. But its main consequence is deepening the commitment and broadening the range of issues through which this general lens of gun ownership is deemed relevant. We sometimes lose the broader context that the gun issue is wrapped up with a whole bunch of other issues that are really important politically. People’s views on gun control are often shaped by much more than whether we think background checks would be good or bad.

One widespread public reaction to the Robb Elementary shooting is the idea that we’re in a moment of severe political regression around abortion rights, yet “pro-life” lawmakers also tend to be stridently pro-gun in a way that feels hypocritical. How do single-issue anti-abortion voters react to moments like this? Does it shake their purpose in any way?

I think it depends on the extent to which that sort of pro-life identity — let’s think of it as an identity rather than just as an issue stance — is aligned with Republican partisan identity. If they see Republicans as the good guys on the abortion issue, then I’m not sure that even an event like [the mass shooting] is likely to reshape their voting behavior, because they’re still going to think that the best thing they can do in regard to that single issue that they care about most is to continue voting for Republicans. They might say, in a poll or in conversation with their friends, that they’d be fine if more gun regulations were passed, but they’re not going to change their behavior in ways that would contribute to that legislation.

What are the stories that in your experience have proven to change people’s minds and get them to think differently about this issue? The Parkland survivors were a powerful story of survival, but not enough to actually make progress.

I think continuing those efforts and continuing to appeal to people on the basis of protecting children will help the movement and might lead to opportunities to create otherwise unexpected, strange bedfellows and political arrangements. I think gun safety advocates would be wise to form coalitions with people who are really interested in other forms of child protection.

What’s difficult to say is the extent to which those other movements are tied together. Here’s one way to think about it, but it’s a little wonky. There are issue connections and ideology at play — which sorts of issues seem to logically fit together politically. You could see gun regulations aimed at protecting schools fitting into a sort of broader range of positions that people think are protective of children, but then there are also other political coalitions that have already formed between different social groups. And those ties can create an us-versus-them environment. Overcoming those outlooks can be really hard.

From an issue perspective, it seems obviously hypocritical to hold a whole set of positions aimed at protecting children but then to not hold this other one related to protecting children from the effects of guns in schools. But if you take a step back and think about the more longstanding political coalitions that exist, it’s easier to make sense of, even if it’s frustrating.

Politicians tend to think about things in terms of votes won and votes lost. So having a few more percentage points of the public shift to the gun control side isn’t going to tip the balance. If that were the case, we would have seen the enactment of strong gun safety regulations long ago because public opinion has been on the side of gun control ever since public opinion polls have existed. It’s more a question of building a movement that can pressure politicians, particularly politicians within the Democratic Party, to really prioritize this issue.

If we look at the two recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, those regions of the country are not politically similar. New York state has very different laws than Texas, yet we see similar events occurring there despite more restrictive gun laws. Are guns so widely available that the idea of gun control at this point is really just window dressing?

I think that mass shootings are particularly hard to prevent, and where they occur within the country is somewhat random. I think sometimes the conversation around guns falls into a trap where the bar that gun-control proposals have to meet is the total prevention of mass shootings. I don’t think that that is a reasonable bar.

If you think about seat belts, seat belts don’t necessarily prevent fatalities during car crashes. But they make fatalities less likely, and on average, they reduce the number of traffic fatalities. Mass shootings can occur in places that have strong gun regulations and they can occur in places that have weak gun regulations. Given the number of guns that exist in US society, they probably won’t go away, even if new regulations are passed. I think the right bar is trying to make them less frequent and trying to make them less deadly when they do occur.

The other thing that happens is that mass shootings, particularly school shootings, serve as focusing events. Their tragic nature brings a ton of attention to this issue. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s appropriate for these to be conversation-generating moments. But what’s interesting is that despite how frequently they occur in the US, they nonetheless comprise a rather small proportion of annual gun-related deaths. So if you’re in favor of gun safety regulation, you want to take the unfortunate opportunity presented by moments like this to not just talk about ways that mass shootings might be reduced, but to more generally focus on measures that might reduce everyday rates of gun misuse.

So, mass shootings are really hard to predict, and probably distinctly hard to prevent. But that in itself isn’t necessarily evidence that gun regulations are ineffective. It just means that they’re not perfect, just like any policy intervention is imperfect.

To truly control not only the frequency but the deadliness of these incidents would require a broad-spectrum overhaul of the way we approach not only gun availability, but things like mental health, gun manufacturing and training, public safety, even things like domestic violence training for law enforcement officers. So many factors contribute to the big picture of gun control.

There’s no single policy that’s going to be effective. There’s no magic.

Right. It’s overwhelming. I do feel like a lot of people feel a sense of fatalism over this issue — this sense that the nation as a whole has given up. This obviously applies to many more things than just gun control, but I think gun control is an especially crucial issue that many people feel hopeless about. Does anything signal to you that it’s not all despair?

I think that the gun safety advocacy movement is as strong now as it’s been in my lifetime. I’m in my mid-30s. So, no, despite what many people think, I don’t think that Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun debate. I think the folks advocating on behalf of gun control have made real gains in terms of building a movement and establishing effective organizations and institutionalizing those organizations and building political power. They’ve been persistent and dedicated and savvy, and those efforts have not led to federal level gun control laws, but have been effective changing the debate in certain ways and achieving policy gains on the city level and different places.

But I think the more depressing answer is that this issue, like other issues, is currently shaped by the nature of US democracy, which makes dealing with pressing social issues incredibly difficult. I think it basically requires unified Democratic control of government with either the abolishment of the filibuster or a supermajority in the Senate.

If that had existed when Sandy Hook happened, gun control would’ve passed. If it were to exist right now, gun control would pass. The reality of the situation is that it’s very hard for that to happen. It’s hard in a polarized country for any political party to get 60 seats in the Senate, but it’s particularly hard for a political party like the Democrats, who are at a disadvantage right now both because of the nature of how Senate seats are apportioned and because of gerrymandering and geographic partisan sorting. So I think the more depressing statement is that in some ways gun control, like many political issues, depends on democracy reform.

Having said that, change is possible in politics, especially in moments when people are anxious and scared and alarmed and disgusted by world events. So I do think this could be a moment to really focus on portraying this issue as one related to protecting kids and as something that everyone who’s interested in protecting kids should care about. Still, it’s not going to be easy to hold a coalition together that’s divided on a range of other issues.

Do you have any advice for how people can take care of themselves and their kids and communities and help each other make sense of this moment?

I would say, politically, get involved, and get involved on the local level. Gun safety advocacy organizations have established chapters around the country, and the way these things work best is bottom-up. The road forward is not particularly clear or easy or likely to yield short-term successes, but I think the best way to channel one’s frustrations would be to get involved.

But also, you know, hug your kids. That’s not gonna necessarily keep them safe, but it’s scary for everyone.

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