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December 18, 2012 10:43 AM Will There Be Gun Control Legislation?

By John Sides

Jon Chait is pessimistic.  Jon Bernstein perhaps less so.  Alec MacGillis even less so.  Here is my two cents:

First, this shift in public opinion is worth mentioning:

More than half of Americans see the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday as a sign of broader problems in society, not merely the isolated act of a troubled individual, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. The finding represents a major reversal from previous polling conducted after mass shootings.

And people who think such massacres are signs of “broader problems” are more likely to favor gun control.  This is a familiar finding within political science.  See, for example, Shanto Iyengar’s work on poverty.  If you think that people are poor or people commit mass atrocities because of who they are as individuals—lazy, crazy, etc.—then there is less reason to want or expect the government to do something about it.  But if it’s a broader society problem, then the government can do more.  The point is: how people explain an event is crucial to how they respond to that event.

Of course, public opinion alone doesn’t guarantee action.  Which leads me to…

Second, any negotiation over gun control is in some ways the opposite of the negotiation over the fiscal cliff.  With the fiscal cliff, as Robert Frank noted, Republicans need an agreement much more than Obama does, since the consequences of no agreement—especially the tax increases—are more noxious to the GOP.  In other words, Obama’s BATNA is no agreement at all, followed perhaps by his own tax cut initiative.

But with gun control, this is reversed.  It’s Republicans that would prefer nothing to happen—i.e., no new restrictions on guns.  Obama is forced to negotiate with them, as Bernstein noted.

Third, will Republicans, especially House Republicans, negotiate a deal on gun control?  Here are two reasons to be skeptical.  One is the National Review:

It is easy, and in moments of despair such as Friday quite understandable, to scream “more” to gun control, “more” to the morass of airport-style security that is spreading its way across our institutions, “more” to the diagnosis and institutionalization of the mentally ill. But it is much harder to write the laws that would have guaranteed Adam Lanza could never find a gun, or enter a school by force, or go without what diagnosis, treatment, and supervision he might have needed. And hardest of all to write them in such a way that the republic we’d be left with would still look like America in the ways we value most.

The other is Ben Domenech:

…those who are more naturally given to see problems of law or culture as the reason for evil look at the horror of Newtown as something that can be prevented, if only we do this or that thing, pass this or that law. Something must be done, they say. But their somethings all have this in common: none of their proposals, on guns or mental health or any other factor, would have prevented this awful crime. In the real world, there is no law that can make the murderously insane sane, or remove all weapons from their grasp. The tweaks that have been attempted in the past in our nation and others have proven insufficient time and again. And no step which disarms the law-abiding will help.

Here are two prominent opinion leaders within the Republican Party who are, very soon after the shooting, arguing against responding to Newtown by passing new gun control laws.  The point isn’t whether that argument is wrong or right.  It may very well be right that such laws would not have prevented Newtown or any future mass shooting.

The point is that I take the National Review and Domenech as indicative of a conversation going on within the GOP.  And that conversation does not seem to be pointing toward allowing gun control legislation to go forward.

The problem, too, is that there isn’t much time.  As Danny Hayes noted, by the time the next Congress is in session, news coverage of Newtown will have dwindled significantly and, perhaps with it, any impetus for new legislation to get done.  Of course, Obama could do things on his own, via executive orders and bureaucratic rule-making.

This post isn’t a prediction.  Just my sense of where things stand right now.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.