The gun bill is dead, but for the shouting. That will come now, thick and fast. “Shame on you, political cowards!” its crestfallen supporters will say, and then they will lash out at the NRA, the Republican party, and, very probably, the Senate itself. This will no doubt be cathartic. But those who indulge such temptations will have drawn the wrong conclusion. With a toxic combination of wishful thinking and mistaken reading of polls, the advocates of stricter control had managed to convince themselves that America was changing in their favor. As recently as last week, Eleanor Clift prophesied on The McLaughlin Group that “the culture of guns is beginning to go through a transformation in this country.” Clift, who appears to be stuck in a bubble, had not yet caught up to reality.
After the abomination at Newtown, Alaska senator Mark Begich, a Democrat, warned of a “sea change.” This conceit was picked up by the media and propagated without criticism or thought and, within a few days, it became conventional wisdom. The president went around the country insisting that “it is clear that the American people want action” and repeating his ever-present conviction that “now is the time.” Fearing a backlash, the investment group Cerberus pulled out of the gun business altogether, arguing that “the Sandy Hook tragedy was a watershed event.” The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, in his hourly columns, alternated between genuine belief that there was momentum in favor of change, poor attempts to divine such momentum from the silence, and open advocacy — leaving his readers unhappily unsure as to which was which.
But, as reason and calm were given time to intrude on the debate, whatever momentum there had been after Newtown quickly disappeared. In the intensity of the aftermath, 58 percent of Americans wanted “stricter” gun laws; today, that number has gone back to 38 or lower, its usual territory. According to Google Trends, the Internet-searching public lost interest in gun control just after Christmas. Crucially, in rural areas, support for tighter control dropped from a post-Newtown high of 49 percent down to 27 percent within three months. Normality and calm, the enemies of reaction, were restored before Joe Biden’s commission had even reported.
National polls, cited as if they were argument-winners, are irrelevant — especially when it comes to the Senate. There is a touch of Pauline Kael about today’s progressive indignation. The population centers in California, Illinois, and New York may still be up in arms — your friends, too — but most other states probably do not have pro-gun-control majorities and, when it comes to regulating firearms, most Americans appear to err on the side of caution. Take a look at the Brady Campaign’s scorecard, which tracks the severity of gun laws across America:
Geography aside, the gun-control movement has another problem: Gun-rights advocates are just infinitely more interested in this issue than the average American. Bill Clinton warned Democrats about this in January, urging them to remember that “these polls that you see saying the public is for us on all these issues — they are meaningless if they’re not voting issues.” Message: Gun owners are engaged; most people are not. Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum put his finger on this this morning:
How did this happen even though, as liberals remind us endlessly, 90 percent of the American public supports background checks? Because about 80 percent of those Americans think it sounds like a reasonable idea but don’t really care much. I doubt that one single senator will suffer at the polls in 2014 for voting against Manchin-Toomey.
As they regroup, gun restrictionists might look at their tactics. The shiny new Gun-Control Thesaurus, in which “gun control” was seamlessly replaced by “gun safety,” “gun-violence prevention,” and “gun responsibility,” did nothing much to help their cause. Likewise, supplanting the already misleading term “assault weapon” with “weapon of war,” “military weapon,” or “combat weapon.” Advocates’ penchant for the wider culture war led them to vilify gun-rights advocates as ridiculous or paranoid and to cast basic liberties as antithetical to the interests of the nation’s children, turning potential allies off and leading to 52 percent of Americans’ disapproving of how the president dealt with the issue.
The public quickly switched off. Try as they might, nobody on the restrictionists’ side could get past the fact that laws banning assault weapons, limiting magazine size, and forcing background checks upon all gun transfers would do nothing to stop maniacs. They could not present ploys such as “if it can save one life . . . ” without looking manipulative and desperate. People can tell when their representatives don’t know what they’re talking about, and they know when they’re being played. Gallup’s revelation in March that only 4 percent of Americans considered guns to be the “most important” issue facing the country instructed us that Senator Begich’s warning of real change’s being imminent was wrong — his “sea change” a mirage. How do I know? Today, he too voted against it.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.