Monday, December 17, 2012

Guns and Strategy

I strongly recommend Jonathan Chait's largely pessimistic view (from the point of view of those who want legislation) of the chances of getting anything restricting guns in any way whatsoever through the House. And if that's correct -- if conservative Republicans remain dead set against anything at all -- then there's almost nothing Barack Obama can do about it (see, too, David Frum's view, which points out the possibility that presidential public leadership could easily polarize the debate and therefore backfire).

That said: I wouldn't completely rule out the possibility that legislation of some sort could be passed, and the president does in fact have a role to play in that. Obama should certainly be actively sounding out Republican leaders to see if there's a deal that could be done, either at the beginning of the next Congress or even during the lame duck session. Is it likely that Republicans would be willing to pass something? No. Is it impossible? No, it isn't, and if they're willing, Democratic leaders in Congress and the president should aggressively seek out any areas of agreement that might exist and try to get it done.

If there really is a deal out there, I'd guess that it would have to be done as far from the cameras as possible -- or, at least, it would be done as far from the cameras as Republicans think would help them. Yup, that's right: if something is going to pass, Republicans get an enormous amount of leverage over what it is, how it's written, and how it's presented publicly. Because without them, you have nothing. Obviously, the president and Democrats won't sign on to anything they believe is counterproductive, but among the wide range of items that gun control advocates think might do some good, it's pretty much up to Republicans -- House Republicans, really -- to pick which ones they can accept. Not only that, but if Republicans demand some (believed by gun control advocates to be) counterproductive items as part of an overall bill, they'll almost certainly get them as long as the bill, overall, is better than the status quo.

The president could give every eloquent speech in the book, but it won't make any difference in the short term. There will be a bill if and only if Republicans want one, and if that's the case they'll pretty much have all the leverage as to what's in it. The only things Obama and the Democrats can do is to make it as easy as possible for Republicans to sign on, and to use their legislative and substantive expertise to make sure the bill does everything Republicans would allow it to do. Those are important things!

Of course, the answer might well be that there is no give here; there may be no possible legislation that can pass the House that Barack Obama would sign. If that's the case, then federal legislation for at least the next two years, and most likely at least the next four years, is impossible, and those who want action need to think about what a long-term campaign should look like. Indeed: even if something can pass, the next step would have to require a long-term plan. Would the best strategy focus on the states? The courts? The Democratic Party -- and if so, the presidential campaign, or downballot primaries? General elections? Popular opinion, saving any active legislative campaign the future? Other options? That's a tough question. And even if something can pass now, it's not going to be much, and that means that the "what next?" question will still need to be asked.

As always, two contradictory things about the American political system dictate all this: on the one hand, veto points are real and often simply cannot be overcome, but on the other hand, the political system really is open to democratic political action, as difficult as that may be. The trick is to accept the reality of the limitations of the system without just giving up, since the opportunities for relatively small groups to influence things is real, too.


  1. Maybe Republicans would give on background checks. I think I just read that huge majorities think they should be required for all gun sales.

    Also, in this case, polarization might not be a bad thing. This could be a long game, and if Dems re-find their courage and find that advocating various measures doesn't kill them politically, they may get something done the next time they catch a wave.

    Finally, there's the exec action the Justice Dept. backed off after Tucson.

    1. What was that? The exec action, I mean. I don't remember.

    2. On that last point...I should have mentioned exec action in the post.

      That's also the only possible way to get some leverage now, but my impression is that what's possible through exec action would not be sufficient to really get gun enthusiasts to feel they needed to cut a deal. I mean, even if the GOP wasn't nuts about cutting deals in general. It's possible that there are further hardball options the WH didn't consider in the last round that they could float now and which really would push the NRA to seek a deal, but I'm not aware of anything like that.

  2. I wonder what people think would change about this issue if this were a real voting issue in Democratic primaries-- if Democrats who had been supporters of the NRA, say, were primaried over this issue. What, if anything would change?

  3. I see things differently. There will be a bill, from Feinstein in the Senate. And with filibuster reform, it could pass. Harry Reid could make THAT the first dare to McConnell. How many GOP Senators will filibuster it? And what kind of national contempt will be visited upon them when they do?

    Assuming pro-gun House Dems do the right thing and STFU (not a safe assumption), we will start out only needing 17-18 moderate Republicans. And there are some.

    Boehner won't bring it to the floor like that. But he also won't dare declare it Dead on Arrival, for obvious reasons. This is how you begin the public pressure. Then you find out what they want for their votes. All of them will take their cue from the NRA's response. If it is as muted as it has been so far, they will have room to bargain. If not, some of them might just be ready to throw caution to the wind after this particularly heinous national tragedy. And they might actually be waiting for a chance to show some muscle and loosen the NRAs iron grip a bit.

    This event has a power others before it did not. It needs little Presidential persuasion. It is its own self-evident justification for stricter regulation. The culture is already proving that, and that realization will permeate enough Representatives to give new legislation a real chance.

    1. Post-Columbine, Republicans felt the pressure to "do something." And they did. Republicans allowed something the NRA despised (gun show loophole, I think) to be attached to a juvenile justice bill that was on its way to passage..and had already passed the Senate.

      Why does that matter? Because this meant that the House bill would differ from the Senate bill, so time for a conference. Well, the GOP appointed the NRA's favorites to the conference committee, which proceeded to never even meet. Never. Even after getting instructed by a vote from the floor of the House to agree to the Senate version and just meet to report the legislation back to the House floor. Twice.

      Thus, Republicans from suburban districts could vote for gun control post-Columbine....without any concern that it would ever become law!

      The Dem Senate will likely pass something (can't filibuster gun control). The GOP House will find a vehicle to attach something to, if only to avoid it coming to the floor under a discharge petition. It will pass the House, barely, with the NRA telling Republicans that it will hurt their ratings (but telling them privately that, so long as this thing dies, they won't primary them). It will then die, whether in conference, LACK of conference(!), or by risking a veto.

    2. Matt; yes, thanks for the history. But there are some differences in the initial conditions of these two post-event political landscapes that could lead to different outcomes.

      1. Dems control the Senate. And Harry Reid is not Trent Lott. If Reid is able to pass something, and the House actually does too, he won’t rest until it’s conferenced. And Obama, Biden, Feinstein, Schumer, Lautenberg, McCarthy, Malloy, Blumenthal and the rank and file activists will be very loudly calling for movement on it, and by extension trying to shame Boehner into following through.

      2. The Brady Bill and Assault Weapons Ban. They were passed just a few years earlier by Clinton and the Dems, and they contributed to the Dems’ rout in 94. The ground then shifted in favor of gun rights and the NRA so that even after Columbine, with the NRA’s full court press, enough people felt that essentially closing down gun shows was going to be an overreach. Armey and Delay and the NRA drew it out, played it perfectly inside and out, and the gun-control passion was overwhelmed with a greater gun rights fervor.

      That can obviously happen again now. But since 1999 we’ve had so many more mass killings; we’ve had the SC broad interpretation of the Second Amendment; we’ve had the Assault Weapons Ban expire; we’ve had dozens of gun rights laws passed in the states; and we’ve had NO successful gun control advocacy in Congress. And most of all, we’ve had this singular despicable murder of innocents. I think the public is now and will continue to be primed for urgent, focused action along the lines of the Feinstein bill, along with mental health measures and stronger background checks. The truth is, all of this should be inspiring much, much stricter regulation.

      3. Us. The internet and social media are orders of magnitude larger and more influential than in 1999 (Geocities, anyone?), and that matters, a lot. What’s more, the Lamestream Media is still a huge player in the political currents, and with people like Scarborough and many other anchors, reporters, and pundits so affected by Newtown, *they* are primed to see this new narrative they are custodians of through to a successful conclusion.

    3. Andrew: How dare you besmirch the name of Geocities?!?!


      Point taken, though I would argue that #2 cuts against it, particularly since all these mass shootings, Heller, and the expiration of the AWB haven't moved the needle at all. Silver's data the other day on what terms we use is telling; it's now a debate about gun RIGHTS, and the first words out of ANY Dem's mouth (on guns) are "hunters and sportsmen."

      I note that one of the only REAL consequences of Sandy Hook so far has been....stores can't keep Bushmasters on their shelves. Now, maybe this is because people are reacting to the very real threat that they'll take these away. (Of course, are they expecting it to just be a ban on sales? If not, people are actively anticipating breaking the law.) However, the last time we saw a spike like this was the election of Obama.

      My point is: if anything, gun nuts have become even nuttier in the last decade. Intense minorities can easily stop legislation in Congress, and not just by the filibuster. When it's more like an intense plurality, possibly even intense, yeah.

      I HOPE you're right. As somebody who was on lockdown on campus on Wednesday last week because some guys shot a pawn shop clerk and ended up running through campus, I'm not going to hold my breath.

    4. Well I was thinking of the "ENOUGH!" factor. That this event could come to mark the apogee of the pendulum swing into gunnuttia. Because of Heller, it won't swing back even to the center, but it might be pulled back a bit. And then we could focus on safety mechanisms, and maybe ammo control. We should be able to use Heller as a pivot, declaring that "gun rights" are fully and plainly protected, but that guns are nowhere near "well-regulated," which is also mandated in the Constitution.

      The spike in sales is because Feinstein's proposal is a "prospective" ban, not a retroactive one. She said that on MTP, but explained it a bit more on PBS:

      GWEN IFILL: Explain to our viewers how what you are planning to introduce would have changed what happened in Newtown, Conn.

      DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, over time, that weapon would be much less available.
      What we're trying to do is ban the sale, the manufacture, the transfer, the importation of assault weapons. And it gets quite technical. And I won't go into that right now.
      Grandfathered weapons that people already have, subject those weapons either to licensing or to a trigger lock, and spell out those grandfathered weapons, which would be over 900 in the bill, so nobody can say, oh, we took our -- their hunting weapon away.
      Then I would be able to say, here's your hunting weapon. It's specifically exempted in the bill.

      GWEN IFILL: So, we're talking about a prospective law, not one...

      DIANNE FEINSTEIN: That's right. That's right.

      GWEN IFILL: ... gun people already own?

      DIANNE FEINSTEIN: It would ban approximately 100 weapons by actual name and then weapons by physical characteristics.

    5. what he said:

  4. Jonathan, As a political scientist you probably are familiar with Anthony Downs' 1972 article about the "issue-attention cycle" (see This article talks about the flow and ebb of public concern about social problems and how that typically results in no policy changes due to waning interest over time. This is the the kind of pro-status-quo inertia that's built into our system and that advocates of change need to overcome.

  5. In terms of long-term strategy, I'm going to cheat and repost something from a previous thread. To wit:

    In general, I think the best way to approach restriction of the gun culture is by taking a kind of public-health tack such as has been used in other public-health scourges, I am thinking particularly of smoking. At one time smoking was essentially ubiquitous in American culture, and the thought of restricting it evoked even more objections than gun control now brings. But we were able to greatly restrict the prevalence of smoking and address its effects. No, we have not eliminated smoking. No, we have not able to get rid of all the problems associated with smoking. Yes, cigarettes are widely and easily available. But by any reasonable measure the effort has made things much better for most people, and society as a whole, than was the case even a generation ago, never mind in the 1950s.

    What worked? A multi-prong effort that aimed not at banning smoking but at making it expensive, extremely inconvenient, and socially unacceptable. This involved everything from action against tobacco companies to public awareness campaigns to restricting smoking in public places to scientific research to you name it. And it involved difficult choices and controversy as well. Yes, it is unfair to target law-abiding gun owners, but it was also unfair to target stressed out blue-collar workers who only wanted to enjoy a smoke in the break room. Yes, it would be unfair to target hard-working gunsmiths who are only trying to provide for their families. It was also unfair to target the livelihood of hard-working tobacco farmers who only wanted to provide for their families.

    We have a health scourge in America, one that isn't as prevalent and overall as deadly as smoking, but one that that is prevalent and deadly nevertheless. We did not make smokers criminals, but we made it more and more difficult and unacceptable for them to indulge. Let us not make gun owners criminals, but let us put great obstacles and inconvenience in their path and make it clear that their activity is severely disapproved of, and make clear the reasons. We did not make tobacco companies criminals, much as they richly deserved it. Let us not make gunsmiths or firearms companies criminals, but force them to partner in the effort in the same way the tobacco companies have. In the end smoking is still with us, but it has gone from being a socially approved scandal to a disapproved problem that is, granted, still major, but at least better controlled. Let us take the gun culture from a place of socially acceptable moral horror to a place of legal but inconvenient, controlled, and disapproved public health problem.

    1. I liked this there, too. The only problem with your argument is that old smokers know that they are wasting their money and lives on an addiction. Thus, old smokers acquiesce on smoking laws. Most of them are tired of their habit.

      There isn't any real parallel in gun-owning. The old guys I know who own guns, who really love guns and hate the idea of liberals taking them away, are not tired of their habit. They are only sad that they cannot afford more guns to keep in their cabinets.

    2. True, the parallel is far from exact. Owning guns does not cause obvious physical illness, as smoking does. Then again, the successes in smoking did not come mainly from getting smokers to quit, but in discouraging people from really getting started. Smoking was also not tied up with self-defense and protection. So the parallel is even less exact. But I nevertheless think that the gun culture, like the drug culture with which it is in some ways intertwined, is best approached from a health standpoint rather than a standpoint of criminal law. Maybe, as Jeff points out, dueling and cock-fighting are useful examples. I think the chief lesson to draw from the smoking example is that success is possible, but will be incomplete and will require a sustained effort on many fronts over many years. It took forty years to make a serious dent in smoking, and there is still an enormous amount of work to be done. Even at that there were plenty of road blocks and false starts. In some ways the approach on guns s actually much easier than that on smoking, as gun owners cannot claim, as smokers did for decades, that "well, I am the only one who can get hurt."

  6. Obama's first priority in legislation should be ensuring he doesn't endanger the 2014 Dems up for re-election in the Senate. That's the Supreme Court you're talking about.

  7. In terms of laws, I think the model should be Australia's after the Port Arthur massacre, with a gun buyback scheme and stricter registration of weapons. Ultimately there have to be less weapons in the community and this seems the best way. Either that or they have to be kept in Federally sanctioned shooting ranges, never to be let out into the community.

    Another idea from Yglesias is a tax on ammunition. I like that idea.

  8. One good strategy would be to actually study gun violence and safety.

    From Salon:

    Over the past two decades, the NRA has not only been able to stop gun control laws, but even debate on the subject. The Centers for Disease Control funds research into the causes of death in the United States, including firearms — or at least it used to. In 1996, after various studies funded by the agency found that guns can be dangerous, the gun lobby mobilized to punish the agency. First, Republicans tried to eliminate entirely the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the bureau responsible for the research. When that failed, Rep. Jay Dickey, a Republican from Arkansas, successfully pushed through an amendment that stripped $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget (the amount it had spent on gun research in the previous year) and outlawed research on gun control with a provision that reads: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”


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