The word “possible” in the old political axiom that “politics is the art of the possible” hardly seems to apply to the gun debate. Despite calls for action after last month’s horrible school shooting in Connecticut, political cynics seem to have it right when they opine that not much, if anything, is likely to change. After all, haven’t we seen this movie before after similar shootings?
This time, though, the cynics might be wrong. Here’s why.
Notable changes in national gun policy have occurred infrequently, but when they have, they’ve come in the aftermath of shocking gun-related events that upended conventional politics. The first modern national gun-control law, the National Firearms Act of 1934, was the culmination of an orgy of gang violence that riveted the nation’s attention. (Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down two months before the bill’s passage; notorious gangster John Dillinger was killed a month after the law’s enactment.) The Gun Control Act of 1968 won final passage because of the escalation of urban violence and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy. The spur to enact the 1994 assault weapons ban was founded in the killing of schoolchildren in California by a drifter using a Chinese-made assault rifle.Admittedly, all of these actions occurred during times of unified party control. But consider another such moment: the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine shooting. Within weeks, Congress was enmeshed in consideration of a bill requiring background checks for all sales at gun show, a bar on unlicensed Internet gun sales and tougher gun crime penalties, among other provisions. Despite open hostility from the Republican leaders who controlled Congress, they yielded to public pressure — amplified by support from then-President Clinton — and brought bills to the floor of both houses. The measure passed in the Senate, but eventually lost in the House after tumultuous consideration. Republican leaders would have preferred to let the bills die quietly in committee, but yielded in the face of public outcry.
If the current divided Congress again yields to public demand for change, what measures might have some effect not only on generalized gun violence but on the kind of mass shootings that have outraged the nation? Aside from renewal of the assault weapons ban and limits on bullet magazines, other measures have received far less attention but might be more achievable and, arguably, have an even greater impact.
Spitzer is Distinguished Service Professor and chairman of the Political Science Department at the State University of New York College at Cortland. He is the author of four books on gun policy, including The Politics of Gun Control.