Following the Atlanta and Boulder murders, we now fall somewhere between hope and inanity. You might think the political moment is propitious. Policies such as tighter criminal background checks and closing the private-sale loophole are wildly popular, including among Republican voters. The National Rifle Association — the main institutional opponent of gun reform — has been weakened by corruption and infighting. Democrats hold the Senate, the House and the presidency.
Yet this issue is likely to remain a symbol of congressional impotence. Even gun measures with 90 percent support among voters would not gain the requisite 60 votes in the Senate. On this issue, strong currents of democratic preference are not passing through our democratic structures. And they are being blocked mainly because of trends within the Republican Party.
First: Republican politics, at the moment, is almost all base politics. There is little emphasis on, say, regaining support from suburban voters that was squandered by President Donald Trump. Republican activists are mainly assessing loyalty, not conducting outreach. In theological terms, a political party can either focus on combating heresy or gaining converts. And the GOP is in full Grand Inquisitor mode. Any hint of independence from Trump’s official line will be punished.
The political calculation here is highly questionable. If Trump had endorsed incremental gun reforms — as he seemed on the verge of doing after the Parkland, Fla., shooting — there is zero evidence his base would have abandoned him or stayed home for the 2020 election. And Trump might have gained an instrument of outreach. Instead, Trump caved to the NRA and backed off any legislative action. It was not only an (expected) moral failure; it was a missed opportunity.
Second, many in the GOP have bought into an absurd slippery-slope argument about gun rights. Conceding any policy ground, the argument goes, would bring a cascade of regulations that lead inevitably toward confiscation. But gun rights are already restricted in a variety of ways, and the confiscation apocalypse has not arrived. Are tighter background checks really likely to trigger it?
This is less an argument than it is a scare tactic. And it gains its power from an unhealthy contempt for government. Some elected Republicans have fallen into the habit of referring to the U.S. government as a hostile, occupying force instead of the admirable product of our own consent. And this has fed the dangerous notion that citizens must possess arsenals to resist the oppression of the state.
This argument for gun rights requires profound, even seditious contempt for the American constitutional order. It has nothing to do with genuine patriotism. And when the public display of arms is used as a method of political intimidation — as some state election officials experienced in the aftermath of the 2020 election — a line is crossed. No democracy can tolerate armed factions in a culture war.
Third, many organizations and political candidates in the Republican universe are engaged in the paranoia grift. Institutions such as the NRA have raised donations for decades by defining any policy outcome short of absolute victory as the verge of utter defeat. Many Republican candidates also reap the rewards of carefully cultivated hysteria. Telling gun owners that their Second Amendment rights hang on a thread is a proven method of motivating donors, voters, cable news viewers and radio listeners. It is also a destructive lie that undermines rational legislative action.
Taking all these factors into account, the Republican Party is unlikely to see an outbreak of mass rationality on gun rights. But the group that could make incremental action possible is small: Just 10 or 12 Republican senators would need to break with the gun lobby and take a political risk.
The argument to this group is relatively simple. The question at issue is not whether a law could have prevented the attack in Atlanta, or in Boulder. Rather, could its effect be positive in any circumstance? Yes, incremental reforms will only be incrementally helpful. But in this debate, increments are measured in innocent lives. And the tightening of background checks or the strengthening of “red flag” laws (making it easier to remove guns from the hands of potentially dangerous people) would be an almost undetectable burden on Second Amendment rights.
If there were ever an issue in which conscience should rule, it is this one.