Still No Movement on Gun Regulation

Earlier this year former Secretary of State, and likely 2016 presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton announced her support for marriage equality. This announcement was greeted with happiness, and also relief, by many Democratic and LGBT activists. The timing of Clinton's announcement reveals a lot about how views have changed on marriage equality. When Clinton took the position of Secretary of State in 2009, marriage equality was embraced by few national politicians, but by the time she announced her support she was almost behind the curve. By 2016, support for marriage equality will likely be a given for all serious candidates for the Democratic nomination for president. This has occurred less then twenty years ago after a Democratic president with a comfortable lead in the reelection polls at the time signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law. The revolution in views of marriage in the US since that time has occurred at a pace that was foreseen by very few and is still hard to believe for many who have lived through those years. These changes are remarkable for most people on both sides of the debate, but in twenty years will seem natural, inevitable and probably a bit slow in coming, by all but the most hardened opponents of civil rights for LGBT Americans.

It is the nature of progressive change that it often seems natural and inevitable in retrospect. This sometimes makes it easy to forget how much hard work it took and how much uncertainty there was in the middle of the struggle. This week provided evidence of how far we are from progressive change in other areas. The horrible shootings in both Washington DC and Chicago are a reminder, although it is not clear why anybody would need one, that gun violence remains a serious problem in the US. Both of these shooting took a terrible human tool killing a total of 13 and wounding at least that many.

These tragedies have led, not to any discussion of gun regulations, as few in Washington think there can be any progress at this time in that area. Rather, they have led to a strange kind of meta-narrative in which the theme seems to be that nobody is talking about gun regulations after these shootings. This is, of course, a way of talking about gun regulations, albeit one that is not very confrontational, nor very hopeful.

It is not likely that there will be any meaningful changes to gun laws in the near future, but in the longer term, the prospects look good. The struggle will not be easy, as almost no progressive struggles are, but the curve is already in the right direction. There is a growing awareness that widespread and easy access to guns doesn't keep anybody safer and costs lives. There is, of course, a strong movement opposed to changing gun laws, but this was true of marriage equality a decade ago as well. There is also ample room for compromise on gun regulations in a way that is less true on other issues. This might make it easier to reform gun laws.

Supporters and opponents of gun regulation can already agree on a fair amount, such as the need for gun safety training, and a recognition that Americans should be allowed to own appropriate weapons for hunting and other similar activities. Moreover, it is increasingly clear that the radicals in the pro-gun movements do not represent the interests and views of ordinary gun owners and that they are damaging their cause by staking out such extremist conditions. However, a belief that gun regulation will at some point several decades now seem natural and inevitable means nothing to the victims and families of victims from these latest shootings, nor will this belief prevent the hundreds or thousands of deaths which will likely happen before congress finally acts.

Every time one of these tragedies occurs the opponents of gun regulations present explanations for why gun regulations would not have solved the problem, or in some cases, how the problem was that there were not guns. In the Navy Yard shooting, it has been pointed out that the shooter passed a background checks of the kind advocates of gun regulations support. This is a clever way to limit the discussion to background checks rather than to more broadly rational laws. These arguments often carry the day, but the sum of these arguments still does not refute the reality that our gun policy does not work.

Supporters of gun regulation frequently ask the rhetorical question of how many more shootings it will take before we change our gun policy. The answer to that cannot be known for certain, but it is likely there will be more of these tragedies before reform is made. Every one of those deaths will be seen as baffling an unexplainable at some point in the not too distant future when we finally change our gun laws.