In the days since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., conservatives and gun-rights supporters have learned a hard lesson: Responding to activism driven by personal grief is a tricky business. The teenage survivors of the massacre and other kids pushing for gun control may not have a plan in hand that will actually prevent more bloodshed when they demand “action” from President Trump, Congress, and state legislatures. But those who question this demand do so at their own political peril.
It was with this in mind that President Trump trod very carefully while listening to the expressions of grief and the demands of a group of parents and survivors of a number of school massacres on Tuesday afternoon. He was considerate and appropriately deferential.
While he sought to promote a good idea that gun-control activists don’t like — arming teachers to defend their classrooms against shooters — Trump also made it clear that he was prepared to give ground. He has endorsed strengthening the FBI background-checks database as well as a ban on “bump stocks” that, in effect, convert semiautomatic firearms into automatic firearms. He has even put raising the minimum age for the purchase of AR-15 rifles and a possible return of the Clinton-era ban on assault weapons on the table.
Such a tactical retreat on gun control in spite of concerns about these ideas from both the National Rifle Association and members of the House Freedom Caucus makes sense in the short term for Trump. He is, after all, a relatively newly minted supporter of the Second Amendment and the NRA. He has no principled concerns about increasing the power of the federal government to take rights away from citizens in the guise of stopping violence. Nor, apparently, is he burdened by knowledge of the failure of the previous attempt to ban assault weapons.
Indeed, he may think that because of his strong support of the NRA during the presidential campaign and his first year in office, he has the kind of “Nixon goes to China” standing to force gun-rights activists to accept compromises they would fight to the last bullet if they came from a Democrat.
While Trump is motivated in part by sympathy for the victims as well as a desire to take action, the point of these ideas would be to give those calling for more gun control something while still defending the Second Amendment. But, as Democrats haven’t hesitated to point out, passage of bipartisan measures — such as the background-check law currently mooted in Congress, which would enhance the government’s ability to add violent criminals to the FBI database — isn’t nearly enough to satisfy them.
Given the desire of House Republicans to package the background-check policy with a concealed-carry “reciprocity” law, passage of even that minimal gesture is far from certain. Liberals object to the latter measure, which would make travelers’ concealed-carry permits valid nationwide, including in states that almost never grant such permits to their own residents.
And Republicans looking for an easy way out should not be under the impression that further concessions will solve their problem. Even if somehow the new background-check proposal is signed into law, and even if Trump is able to magically persuade Republicans to limit or ban sales of assault weapons, none of this will satisfy the activists’ demands.
The battle over guns in this country has never been about “common sense” gun reforms, as President Obama continually insisted. Enforcement of existing gun laws might, in some instances, have prevented slaughters. But none of the proposals put forward by the past administration, congressional Democrats, or the survivors of Parkland or other such massacres would end the epidemic of mass shootings the country has endured. Anodyne policies such as making background checks more onerous would greatly inconvenience legal purchasers but wouldn’t stop the kind of determined killers who generally carry out these crimes.
What those crying out for a “solution” want is something more far-reaching. They want to drastically cut back on the availability of guns in a country awash in them. The effort to use the Parkland massacre to mobilize grassroots lobbying is fundamentally a culture war, not a political debate in which reasonable people can agree to disagree.
The only thing government could do that would give the activists what they crave is to repeal the Second Amendment.
The only thing government could do that would give the activists what they crave is to repeal the Second Amendment, which guarantees the rights of citizens to bear arms. A debate about this would be the only honest debate about guns, since repealing the amendment would give the government the ability to ban a wide array of weapons that could be used in mass shootings as well as to confiscate weapons already in circulation (a number that nears the total of U.S. citizens).
Democrats are too politically savvy to embrace a demand that, while a logical extension of their desire to make guns scarce and hard to obtain, would directly put them at odds with much of the country — folks who think taking away the right to a gun is synonymous with tyranny. Instead, they focus on ideas that won’t stop massacres but do give them the opportunity to demonize the NRA and its supporters.
As Senator Marco Rubio learned last night at a CNN forum with Parkland students and others, the only way to survive such evenings — after being pilloried and subjected to catcalls for refusing to ban assault weapons or stop taking contributions from the NRA — is to pledge to rethink measures one previously opposed, such as banning various gun magazines or raising the age for legally purchasing a weapon. But if he thinks doing so will get him or his party out of the crosshairs of a movement engaged in demagoguery aimed at shaming opponents, he’s kidding himself.
That’s something other Republicans need to keep in mind as they prepare to dodge and weave in the face of activists who are interested not in debate about the efficacy of the measures they endorse but rather in issuing blanket demands that will effectively silence gun-rights supporters.
If what happened at Parkland is enough to cause the country to change its view of constitutionally protected rights, that’s a debate worth having. But until that happens, conservatives shouldn’t be fooled into believing a few clever tactical retreats, like those of Trump or Rubio, will satisfy their opponents or free them from being attacked by sympathetic gun-violence survivors. In such a political environment, backing down will be just as perilous as standing firm.