Six of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history occurred in this decade. Although these massacres are always followed by intense public debate about gun control, they rarely lead to meaningful action in Congress. Should we expect anything different after the rampages in Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton, which killed 34 people?
Pessimists would say no. After all, the political clout of the National Rifle Assn. has been a major obstacle to gun reform for decades, with a membership that is unusually politically active. In fact, many NRA members are single-issue voters who refuse to support candidates who are not sufficiently “pro-gun.” Lawmakers in districts with a fair number of gun owners, not surprisingly, believe they’ll pay a heavy political price if they support any form of gun control legislation and underestimate the extent of public support for it.
The activism of NRA members is no coincidence. The organization has spent decades carefully constructing a social identity generally around gun ownership (not merely for NRA members). Using its widely circulated magazines and popular firearms programs as vehicles for advancing this identity, the NRA has portrayed guns not just as tools for recreation and self-defense, but also as symbols of who gun owners are and what they collectively value. The NRA uses its publications, not simply to provide information, but to create a highly politicized view of what it means to own guns. In this view, gun owners are seen as patriotic, law-abiding citizens who defend the American tradition against foreign and domestic threats.
Whenever gun control becomes a matter of political debate after a mass shooting, the NRA portrays that identity as being under threat. Gun owners — who believe that their political opponents are not just advancing flawed legislation, but also attacking their values — tend to respond in large numbers.
We’ve seen this result many times over after gun-related tragedies. Many politicians, fearing the wrath of the NRA and its members, either reaffirm their opposition to gun regulations or attempt to deflect the conversation away from firearms by rehashing spurious talking points about mental health issues or video games.
Even when lawmakers signal that they may be willing to consider new gun legislation, their words may be disingenuous. The NRA’s Republican allies have in the past attempted to reduce public pressure by stating their openness to gun control, but then found ways to drag the legislative process out until media attention subsided and bills in Congress fizzled. Opposition by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been enough to stop legislative proposals in their tracks. A veto threat from President Trump — who has spoken at the NRA’s annual convention for five consecutive years — would have the same effect.
Still, there are two reasons to think change is more likely now than it has been for decades, even against this entrenched dynamic.
First, the gun control movement is stronger now than at any point since at least the early 1990s. Gun control advocacy efforts established after the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut in 2012 and last year’s mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., are gaining momentum. Activism in support of gun control is no longer lagging quite so far behind activism in opposition to it, as groups like Moms Demand Action work to build a sense of identity among Americans who are fed up with gun violence.
Second, the NRA is in turmoil. It is being investigated for financial improprieties that could threaten its status as a nonprofit organization and it’s involved in several lawsuits, which have produced embarrassing publicity. And it is also experiencing substantial infighting; its president, Oliver North, and its longtime top lobbyist, Chris Cox, were recently pushed out of the organization because of their involvement in a failed coup attempt directed at the NRA’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre. The leadership controversies don’t inspire faith among rank-and-file members even as the group faces serious financial trouble.
Even if no substantial gun regulations end up passing in the current Congress, the reinvigoration of the gun control movement and the internal disorder in the NRA indicate that the prospects for gun reform in the middle or long term are promising. Many Democratic candidates won in the 2018 midterms by heavily emphasizing support for gun control during their campaigns, and that trend is continuing in the Democratic presidential primary.
Whether meaningful change will happen in the coming years may depend on whether gun control activists can take a page from the NRA playbook. That means figuring out how to sustain momentum by cultivating a deep sense of shared identity among the millions of Americans who are tired of widespread gun violence.
Matthew J. Lacombe is an assistant professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University.