Ten Miles Square


December 17, 2012 10:10 AM A Political Response to Gun Violence

By Seth Masket

A common reaction to the tragic events that unfolded in Newtown, Connecticut, is a sense of helplessness. If you’ve watched this and other mass shootings this year and believe some sort of policy change is necessary, but you’ve so far only heard politicians ducking the question or saying that now isn’t the time to discuss gun control, what can you do? And whatever happened to the politicians who supported gun control?

I don’t purport to be an expert on the latter question, but some time over the past three decades Democratic Party leaders simply stopped advocating for gun control. In part, gun control was a casualty of the Democrats’ efforts to make their presidential candidates more electable between Walter Mondale’s drubbing in 1984 and Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992. In part, it represents an overall perception that it was a losing issue for Democratic candidates. Nonetheless, the shift is still somewhat stark and surprising, especially since the Democratic Party, over this same time period, has become less rural and less southern.

If you find this disheartening, what can you do? The easiest answer is political activism. One can still find the occasional politician who supports gun control — Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced this just yesterday — but this is almost always seen as an act of political heroism, while opposing gun control is seen as pandering to the National Rifle Association. There’s no reason this needs to be the case. It’s important to remember that the NRA, as far as I know, has never broken any laws. They simply advocate for their members’ interests using very transparent political processes. As George Stephanopoulos famously said:

Let me make one small vote for the NRA. They’re good citizens. They call their Congressmen. They write. They vote. They contribute. And they get what they want over time.

The NRA does not own the patent on this formula. For those who wish to change the state of American gun ownership laws, the same approach should be used: If you see a politician supporting gun control, give her money. Volunteer on her campaign. Send her a letter thanking her, and then send letters to local newspapers praising her leadership. Make a particular stance on this issue the condition for your support in a primary election, and get your friends to do the same.

There’s no (pardon the term) magic bullet on this issue. It’s simply a matter of providing incentives to politicians. If supporting gun control is a heroic act, very few of them will do it. If it’s an easy way to gin up praise and campaign support, a lot of them will.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.
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  • Platon on December 17, 2012 1:47 PM:

    I think we desperately need a federal database of people who have had mental health issues or been prescribed the drugs implicated in most of these mass killings to be added to the current FBI gun background check.

    I don't think a federal database with people who have diagnosed depression or ashbergers etc should be used in employment etc, but it should definitely be used when people apply for a gun permit.

  • Charles Giacometti on December 18, 2012 6:29 PM:

    Stephanopoulos is a moron. NRA members may well call or write their congressmen, but they are not good citizens. They are, at best, willing dupes for the manufacturers who lead the murder industry. At worst, they are active supporters of the murder industry.

    NRA members are also the tea party and also the poor and lower-middle-class suckers without health insurance who spew the Koch brothers rhetoric verbatim.

    There are rational people, and there are morons. I am tired of us politely excusing the horrifically stupid and misguided actions of these rubes.