Those advocating tighter restrictions on firearm sales got a lesson in power politics. Each and every proposal put to a vote in the US Senate to enhance gun safety went down to defeat. Despite the high-profile mass murders, the constant loss of life in gun violence and the support of most of the American electorate, a loud minority of well-financed zealots halted all attempts at reform. The question now is whether the advocates of gun safety have the necessary ruthlessness to fight effecitvely in future.
Many of the arguments aganst the proposals were sophstries or outright lies. Universal background checks for gun sales would not lead to a national gun registry. Such checks would not prevent a grandfather from given a grandchild a hunting rifle for Christmas. But the paramoid became useful tools for the firearm manufacturers. As the Washington Post stated, the National Rifle Association and its fellow travelers “galvanized its members to pepper senators with letters, e-mails, phone calls and appearances at town hall meetings, which convinced enough of them that voting for the measures would jeopardize their reelection prospects.”
Senators know that those who worry about losing their guns to the black helicopters and one-world government vote on gun rights exclusively. Those who advocate treating firearms like the dangerous tools that they are vote on a broader range of issues. Thus, the electoral calculaus is simple; one must yield to the few percent who oppose any gun regulation and then try to assuage the rest of the electorate by voting in pleasing ways on other issues.
For the Republican members of the upper chamber, the big worry is facing a primary election challenge. For the few Democrats from more conservative states, the fear is losing a general election due to a pro-regulation vote. And for gun safety advocates, that is the main challenge. How to terrify these invertebrate legislators into voting their way?
The answer, of course, is to make them face what they tried to avoid all along — a challenge to their incumbency. Each and every member of the senate who voted against what most of the electorate wanted should face a primary challenge. For Democrats, that should be easy enough — find a local politician who runs an appropriately vicious primary campaign holding the incumbent responsible for the Sandy Hook massacre, or whatever the next one is (and there will be a next one). They must learn that one cannot win a general election if one cannot win a primary election.
As for the Republicans, the strategic objective is a bit different. In the current atmosphere, one will not win a Republican primary by attacking an incumbent from the left. However, a well-funded campaign against an incumbent that loses the primary can achieve two important things. First, if can deplete the incumbent’s war chest. If a candidate has to spend $1 million to keep his or her place on the ballot, that is $1 million that can’t be spent on the general election. Second, by forcing the incumbent into defending his or her position, a primary challenge can create valuable (that is, damaging) sound bites for the November election. The Republicans lost seats they should have won last autumn because their candidates tried to defend rather extreme positions on abortion and did so badly. The same can happen with firearms issues.
There is a naive belief in the US that the will of the people can prevail simply because it is the will of the people. The Constitution, however, is designed to prevent change. The founding fathers rather liked the way things were and just wanted a strong central government to protect the status quo. The gun safety crowd just learned the truth about the democracy in which they live — it takes more than righteous indignation to carry the day. Whether they can adapt to this situation remains to be seen.