Will Republican fealty to the NRA finally sink the GOP?
It's starting to feel that way, more than a week following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 were murdered; three months after 26 churchgoers were slaughtered in Sutherland Springs, Texas; four months after 58 concertgoers were massacred (and 500 injured) in Las Vegas; and more than five years after 26 elementary school children and teachers were gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut.
After each of those shootings, nothing much happened. Or rather, the exact same thing happened: Liberals (including President Obama after all those gradeschoolers were slaughtered in Sandy Hook) spoke of the need to pass significant gun control measures, conservatives opposed doing anything, and the conservatives won, with the clamoring for action dying down fairly quickly after the bodies were buried.
This time it's different.
For one thing, three of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in American history have taken place within the past five months. For another, the presidency of Donald Trump has many on the left side of the political divide in a constant state of agitation, hungry to take back power from the right and eager to organize public protests. Then you have the inspiring outspokenness of the high school students from Parkland, who have been speaking out in demonstrations and on TV for the past week.
All of these trends have likely contributed to the recent sharp shift in public opinion on gun control. Since 2015, the percentage of those in Gallup's ongoing tracking poll of attitudes toward firearms saying that American gun laws should be made stricter has climbed from 47 percent to 60 percent. Meanwhile, of the 59 percent who claim to be dissatisfied with U.S. gun policy, 46 percent would prefer to see gun laws made tougher, while just 13 percent would like to see them kept the same or made weaker.
The numbers are even starker in a Quinnipiac poll conducted since the Parkland shooting and released earlier this week. Sixty-six percent of all voters — and 50 percent of gun owners — support stricter gun laws, with an astonishing 97 percent supporting universal background checks, 83 percent supporting a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases, and 67 percent favoring a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons.
This is as close as we get to a full-force gale in American politics. And the political response? So far, at least, there's none at all beyond the usual boilerplate. Liberals want reform, but they lack power, while conservatives excel at offering thoughts and prayers but little else beyond total deference to the minority of Americans who think the rights of gun owners should take precedence over concern for the public good at its most basic level (protection against violent death).
And that brings us to the heart of the matter.
The Republican Party has backed itself into a politically untenable position, defending a stance on gun rights that is so extreme it has rendered the government incapable of fulfilling its most minimal function, which is to protect citizens against the kind of deadly violence from which they would suffer in the absence of any government at all. At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last Wednesday, students and teachers were transported by a well-armed sociopath to an anarchic state of nature lacking in any authority to protect them. The government is losing its monopoly on violence, which means that the government is fundamentally failing to do its job.
And it is fundamentally failing to do its job because of Republican decisions about gun policy.
That the GOP has been able to get away with it until now is not particularly surprising. On the contrary, it's in some ways the emblematic political story of our time.
On issue after issue — health care, immigration, abortion, guns — the GOP is a minority party that deftly uses various countermajoritarian tendencies of our system to leverage the support it does command into outsized political power. It does this in various ways — by stoking negative partisanship at every opportunity; through the kind of brass-knuckle gerrymandering that delivers Republicans 13 out of 18 House seats in Pennsylvania even in years when they lose the popular vote statewide; by refusing to compromise with Democrats (and thus hand them a political victory) even when public opinion clearly favors the more liberal position; and by using right-wing media and lobbying outfits (like the NRA) to keep Republican voters whipped into a froth of anger in defense of policies that are broadly unpopular.
In our sharply polarized moment, a highly organized and angry minority can beat a diffuse and distracted majority every time.
But what if the majority isn't diffuse and distracted? What if events conspire to make it just as organized and angry as the minority?
President Trump's disapproval rating hasn't fallen below 50 percent in nearly a year. Many of his policies, from the corporate tax cut to his canceling of the DACA program without proposing an alternative path to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants, are broadly unpopular and intensely disliked by activists on the left.
And then there's guns.
There were already plenty of signs of a rising Democratic wave before the Parkland massacre. But now? After all the deaths, and the endlessly repeated perfunctory expressions of impotence on the part of our politicians, and the risible suggestion of our credulous commander in chief that the answer to deadly weaponry in our schools is even more deadly weaponry in our schools — after all of that, will the wave not rise higher? Will Democrats and left-leaning independents, and maybe even some Republican parents, not show up at the polls in November to register their disgust at the refusal of our elected officials to do anything at all in response to the carnage piling up all around us?
I could be wrong. But this time feels different. This time Republicans better watch out. A majoritarian storm is brewing, it's moving their way, and there could be little left standing by the time the outraged winds stop blowing.