Although OVERSHADOWED by the Boston Marathon attacks, the low point of Barack Obama’s presidency may have come when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid bowed to the reality of a Republican filibuster and tabled the bipartisan Toomey-Manchin bill to broaden gun background checks. At a press conference afterward, surrounded by weeping families whose children were massacred in Newtown and Tucson, Obama let himself get angrier than he had before in public. Reid vowed that it would be “only a matter of time” before Democrats passed meaningful gun legislation.
To most people, this assurance rang hollow. As several commentators pointed out, the impediment of the filibuster, the disproportionate power that the Senate imparts to rural, pro-gun states, and the fact that even the slaughter of 20 children could not get Congress moving all seem to indicate that curbing gun violence through legislation might be impossible.
But while it may be cold comfort to people stunned by Congress’s failure to act, Reid is probably right. There are at least four reasons for optimism about gun control in the years ahead.
1. Gun control is no longer taboo. Most Americans mistakenly believe that politics really works the way it does on “The West Wing,” where an impassioned speech by President Bartlett can rouse the country and bend the opposition. In the real world, things work differently. One reason gun legislation is so hard to pass is that Democrats abandoned the issue in the mid-1990s, convinced that it harmed their ability to attract the blue-collar voters they relied on.
When Democrats ceded the debate to the National Rifle Association, public opinion followed. In 1990, 78 percent of Americans favored stricter gun laws. On the eve of the 2012 election, that number had fallen to 44 percent. As recently as last October, Obama was terrified of the issue. Asked about gun control at a town-hall debate, he delivered a paean to the Second Amendment.
Newtown changed this. Public support for stricter gun laws shot up to 58 percent. And many politicians — most, but not all, Democrats — seem to have been genuinely moved to act.
2. Governors are making big advances. In the past, public clamor for stricter gun laws after mass shootings proved fleeting. This time it will probably endure, because even as legislation collapsed in Congress, governors were making huge strides at the state level. In New York, Andrew Cuomo pushed through an assault-weapons ban. In Maryland, Martin O’Malley will soon sign a law banning 45 types of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, and requiring gun buyers to obtain a license and submit to fingerprinting. In Colorado, John Hickenlooper has signed legislation banning high-capacity magazines and requiring background checks; and he may soon sign additional measures to seize guns from those convicted of domestic violence and to require training to receive a concealed-weapons permit.
All three governors are Democrats. But Republican governor Chris Christie of New Jersey just announced that he will seek to expand background checks and ban certain high-caliber guns.
3. Guns have become a litmus-test issue for Democratic presidential aspirants. Can these state laws influence national politics? Yes, because each of the governors pushing them is thought to be eyeing the White House. For Democrats, guns have become a good issue to run on. The blue-collar men that the party once feared losing have mostly left. They’ve been replaced by a rising coalition of “Obama Democrats” — young people, minorities, and suburban women — who strongly favor stricter gun laws.
4. Opposing gun control will make it harder for Republicans to win the White House. The same demographic pattern that gives pro-gun Republicans outsize power to block gun legislation in the Senate hurts them in presidential elections. In the Senate, small states like Wyoming have identical representation to huge states like California. But power in the electoral college is allocated proportionally: Wyoming has 3 votes, California 55.
As Ronald Brownstein noted in National Journal, tallying up the electoral college votes of the 21 states in which both senators supported Toomey-Manchin yields 261 votes — nearly the 270 needed to win the White House. The 17 states in which both senators opposed it yields just 146 votes. This suggests that unfettered opposition to gun control will harm the Republican nominee in 2016, a thought that may have occurred to Chris Christie.
None of this means that passing national gun laws will be easy or that legislation will be sweeping or comprehensive. But it does suggest that Reid was onto something when he declared, “The stand of the Republicans is not sustainable.”
Joshua Green is national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.