The debate over bump stocks is an excellent illustration of two competing models of political strategy. Here’s why, and which one seems to be winning.
First, some quick background. One of the key ways to make guns more effective – and lethal – against large numbers of people is to increase their rate of fire. In the era when the Second Amendment was written in 1791, this was mostly a loading issue: the dominant weapon was the muzzle-loaded musket, which could be so slow to reload (by standing it up and stuffing the projectile down the barrel) that New York militia fighting Mohawk and Seneca warriors at the Battle of Oriskany had to fight in alternating pairs to fend off being tomahawked while reloading. But the British had already introduced the Ferguson rifle, an early breech-loaded weapon (i.e., loaded from the side, not down the barrel), and there were early variants of the repeating rifle (which allowed multiple rounds to be loaded at once) in scattered use in Europe. Neither would become practical for mass production until the mid-19th Century, but technology was already on the march.
Today, in addition to debates over the size of magazines used to reload weapons, there are other innovations: many guns on the civilian market are semi-automatic (meaning they automatically put a new bullet in the chamber after firing), while it’s expensive, complex and nearly impossible to legally obtain guns that are fully automatic (meaning the shooter can release bursts of fire without having to keep pulling the trigger for each individual shot). There’s some grandfathering loopholes in the ban on full-auto guns, but as a practical matter, legal automatic weapons are so rare that they’re known to have been used in a total of three crimes in the United States since 1934.
A bump-fire stock or bump stock is a device that can simulate a fully automatic rate of fire on a semi-automatic rifle, by using the “bump” energy from the recoil of the rifle to force the trigger finger back to the trigger. The Las Vegas shooter reportedly used one. If you think Congress was right to ban automatic weapons, you should have no quarrel with also banning bump stocks, whose only purpose is to make semi-automatic rifles fire more like automatic ones. But the policy debate is really a sideshow; even advocates of a ban recognize that bump stocks don’t fully simulate automatic rates of fire, and do so at the cost of accuracy, plus they are so easy to build on your own that a 3-D printed version was introduced and circulated on the web in 2013. A ban is thus pretty small potatoes one way or another, but it’s a symbolic step.
It’s the symbolism that’s illustrates the divide on the Right over measures like this one. There are really two schools of thought when it comes to political and legislative strategy in America’s two-party system. One, which I have argued in favor of for years, is the “high ground” strategy: pick your battles or have them picked for you, always seek the most defensible turf to choose battles that unify your side and divide the opponent, and make your pitch to the unconverted middle as to why your side’s approach is reasonable. This is a strategy that treats persuasion as paramount.
Part of the high ground strategy is knowing when and how to give ground. Sometimes, you give ground in two-sided deals, but sometimes you also make concessions on your own that don’t cost you that much and show the uncommitted voters that the ground you do stand firm on is reasonable. You see the other side’s wedge issues (i.e., issues where your own coalition is divided and the swing voters are against you) and disarm them by modest strategic retreats. And conversely, when you go on the offensive, you seek out wedges that force the other side to choose between retreating and looking unreasonable. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were both practitioners of high-ground strategy, as have been many popular and successful Republican governors and mayors; Newt Gingrich was for years an evangelist of its dynamics, even if he was not always that effective in sticking to the theory in practice. Bill Clinton, on the Democratic side, was a master of the form. In military terms, the classic high-ground campaign was George Washington’s approach in the Revolution: strategic retreat and giving battle only when the terms were favorable.
The alternative view, which has gained a lot of currency on the Right in the Age of Trump (and gained a lot of currency on the Left after the 2006 elections), is the “not one inch” strategy. The “not one inch” strategy starts with the view that politics is mainly about mobilization, rather than persuasion; you run on your base and focus on turnout, and to the extent that swing voters matter, they will mostly go back and forth due to external events and trends anyway. Thus, looking reasonable or even trying to convince anyone of the merits of your arguments is pointless; what matters is the dynamics of power and showing that you are strong and always fighting for your side. The “not one inch” strategy turns heavily on the primacy of morale: by forcing the other side to fight to the death for everything, no matter how modest, you wear them down, drain their energy and resources, and keep your own people engaged and feeling successful. In military terms, the model is the Soviet defense of Stalingrad, where commanders shot their own men if they fell back even slightly, and bled the enemy whiter than themselves, until the invaders had nothing more to throw at them. A legislative “not one inch” strategy also takes as a given that even small, reasonable concessions will be cited against you, politically and perhaps in litigation, the next time the other side comes back for more:
We all know the drill here: you give a Democrat an inch and they take several hundred miles. Bump stocks are banned, but what about so-called high-capacity magazines? Why not military-looking rifles? Why not certain types of ammunition? Why not placing limits on how many guns you can buy? Why not a ban on firearms? This is the road we’re going to go down with these people. We all see their allies on the anti-gun Left; they want to end gun ownership. They want to gut the Second Amendment and put our Constitution through the shredder…There’s talk from the Left about the cumulative effect of anti-gun legislation having an impact on reducing gun violence…[There are] numerous, smaller scale, and more targeted ways of combating gun crime, but the Left won’t like it because it doesn’t chip away at gun rights.
There is no downside whatsoever to not passing, or even blocking, more redundant gun control laws. Working with Democrats on gun policy is a very dangerous game; Republicans should avoid working with them altogether on this issue. We all know what their end goal is and it’s not just expanded background checks.
A corollary is the view that your position in any negotiation should be so maximalist and extreme that you end up where you’d like to have started, after exhausting your adversary. This is more or less the approach to negotiation that Donald Trump espoused in Art of the Deal and deployed throughout his business career – but of course, one that worked for him in part because of his willingness to let particular enterprises crash, burn and go bankrupt.
Guns are such a flashpoint for this broader debate over strategy for a reason: for two decades now, the pro-gun-rights forces have mostly stuck to a “not one inch” strategy, and they have been vastly more successful at this (in court as well as Congress and the state legislatures) than any other group in the GOP coalition. Talk to pro-lifers, or spending cutters, or foes of Big Regulation, or immigration hawks, or defenders of traditional marriage and culture, or even tax cutters, and you hear endlessly complaints that “all we ever do is lose” and “we elect people and they don’t deliver, they don’t even try.” But on guns, the stubborn root-and-branch resistance to anything proposed by pro-gun-control forces has been hugely successful, ranging from the recognition of an individual Constitutional right by the Supreme Court in 2008 to the expiration of the assault weapons ban to the passage of many new state laws on subjects like concealed-carry. The best analogy on the Left would be the press for same-sex marriage, in which a maximalist strategy of rejecting compromise, demanding a national, top-down solution from the Court, and deploying the government against individual dissenters has thus far moved the needle very far in an astonishingly short number of years (although imitating that strategy would be perilous without considering the role of popular culture figures in doing the heavy lifting of persuasion on the issue).
I continue to believe that a high-ground strategy is, on balance, the better approach for a political movement that actually expects to win majorities and converts over time. The not-one-inchers have a point on guns: the strategy so far has worked. But the number of Republican Senators and Congressmen lining up to support a bump stocks ban, while still modest, suggests that they prefer to seek the (symbolic) high ground this time. We’ll see if they find it safer than the trenches.