The United States has long had some of the highest gun violence rates in the world — yet we consistently fail to act. Twenty-three years after Columbine, 10 years after Sandy Hook, six years after Orlando, the story remains the same. We get one news cycle of thoughts, prayers and calls for something to be done, but little changes, despite overwhelming support for stricter background checks and an assault weapons ban.
Part of the problem is that while Democrats have broad support for their views, Republicans have greater intensity. Republicans have historically reported more passion about gun policy than Democrats — which can translate to higher turnout in elections. Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association lobbies elected officials against taking widely popular action, supports ultraconservative Supreme Court nominees (who could soon rule concealed-carry license requirements unconstitutional), and dumps millions into elections — including more than $29 million in the 2020 cycle alone.
Those who support ending the gun violence crisis are beginning to match the reactionary right’s organization and intensity on gun policy, from the federal level to the grass roots. Yet the fights ahead are tough.
First things first. In April, the administration attempted to reinvigorate its efforts on gun control by announcing a crackdown on “ghost guns”— unlicensed homemade firearms. This is an admirable step. But to effectively enforce federal gun policy, the country needs a director for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a position that hasn’t been filled in seven years. The Biden administration had to withdraw its first nominee, special ATF agent David Chipman, after barely speaking with him during the confirmation battle and torpedoing his chances by failing to persuade Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) to offer his support. Now, it urgently needs the Senate to confirm Biden’s new nominee, Steve Dettelbach, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. This time, the administration cannot be MIA on the ATF.
The Senate must also take up common-sense gun legislation, such as several bills that already have been passed by the House. These include the Enhanced Background Checks Act, which would close the “Charleston loophole” that allowed Charleston shooter Dylann Roof to purchase a .45-caliber handgun despite his criminal history. There’s also legislation-in-waiting to require background checks for anyone who purchases a gun — and to give the FBI more time to vet flagged buyers.
But even if national Democrats can’t overcome the filibuster — has anyone suggested maybe getting rid of that? — progress can be made at the state level. After the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., the historically pro-gun state of Vermont passed major restrictions, including raising the minimum gun purchasing age to 21 and banning high-capacity magazines. Meanwhile, Massachusetts offers a nation-leading model for safe gun purchases: there, prospective gun owners must undergo a police interview and background check to get a handgun license, complete a firearm safety course, and pass another background check by the gun vendor. Republican-controlled states haven’t hesitated to expand firearm access; recent moves include lifting handgun permit requirements and eliminating mandatory background checks. Democratic legislatures ought to pursue restrictions just as aggressively.
For the greatest effectiveness, however, savvy Democrats know they need to harness this cause’s grass-roots energy. That means embracing movements such as Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action as enthusiastically as Republicans kowtow to the NRA. It means funding community violence-interruption programs to de-escalate volatile situations. It means backing candidates unafraid to combat gun violence, such as Georgia Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath (a former Everytown staffer who ran for office after losing her son to gun violence), and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (a Democratic candidate for governor who has gun groups terrified enough to campaign for his impeachment). And it means controlling the narrative on gun violence instead of simply responding to it. When Republicans bring up violent crime, Democrats need to shift focus away from pumping more money into bloated policing budgets and instead unflinchingly tout a solution proved to actually work: common-sense gun laws.
As decades pass without action on gun violence, people lose faith that our electoral system can deal with it. But Democrats can make strides on this issue — to protect people’s lives, and to restore faith that political differences can be settled with votes instead of violence.