It’s a truism of modern politics: A fervent, organized minority will beat a disorganized majority almost every time. It aptly describes gun politics in the United States and, most recently, helps explain the defeat of legislation to extend background checks to all gun show and Internet (and otherwise advertised) sales of firearms.
And yet, less than two months after the gun lobby’s victory on that matter, there are signs that the dynamic on guns is changing.
That legislation was defeated by two well-organized minorities. Most immediately, it was done in by a minority in the US Senate, where the legislation perished not for lack of a majority, but rather the lack of a supermajority. Although it received 54 votes, that was six short of the 60 it takes to overcome a filibuster.
The second minority, of course, is the one mobilized by the gun lobby. Since its takeover by hardliners in the 1970s, the National Rifle Association’s strategy has been a brook-no-compromise stand on any attempt to strengthen gun laws. In keeping with that strategy, the NRA has portrayed the eminently reasonable push for broader background checks as the first step toward the eventual confiscation of all firearms. That’s part and parcel of the NRA’s long history of ridiculous slippery slope-ism, where even small moves toward more sensible gun laws are portrayed as dangerous steps toward tyranny.
People with a sense of perspective may shake their heads at the absurdity of that kind of rhetoric, which has been rendered even more preposterous by the US Supreme Court’s 2008 and 2010 decisions clearly recognizing the right of private individuals to possess firearms under the Second Amendment.
And yet, the gun lobby’s hysterical charges find fertile ground among a certain perfervid faction. As someone who writes about the issue occasionally, I’m dumbfounded at the e-mails from people who write to warn that the first thing aspiring dictators have done throughout history is disarm the populations they are intent on oppressing. Ask for a remotely plausible scenario under which that could happen in a country with multiple divisions of power, constitutional checks on authority, and regular elections, and the correspondence either ceases or wanders into the land of truly delusional fantasy.
But here’s the good news: The era when overwrought single-issue zealotry carries the day may be fading. In Maine, where Republican Senator Susan Collins — and independent Senator Angus King — supported the background-checks measure, Collins says it’s been the principal issue voters have talked to her about since, in part because a national gun-rights group subjected her to several weeks of over-the-top advertising.
Still, Collins told me, “The response has been largely favorable, and when we are able to explain exactly what is in it, the response becomes positive even among those who were very concerned about the vote.” Indeed, a mid-May poll found that 71 percent of Mainers said they supported the votes Collins and King had cast on that matter, with only 23 percent opposed.
Contrast that with the reaction in New Hampshire, where Republican Kelly Ayotte has seen a 15 point negative shift in her favorable/unfavorable ratings since she, alone among New England senators, voted no.
Or look at West Virginia, the home state of Senator Joe Manchin, co-sponsor of the expanded background-check legislation. In the Mountain State, which has gone Republican in the last four presidential elections and where 63 percent of households have a firearm, a mid-March poll showed that 75 percent support expanded background checks, with only 17 percent opposed.
For proponents to succeed, however, they will have to stay focused. In a noteworthy piece in the June 10 issue of The New Republic, Alec MacGillis recounts the welter of post-Newtown activity on behalf of stronger gun laws. And to be sure, organized activism is crucial.
Yet something simpler is also vital: Citizen after citizen informing their congressmen and congresswomen in person, in emails, in letters, and in calls that they expect them to support sensible gun control.
With the issue of expanded background checks likely to come up again this year, perhaps as soon as August, the time to start is now.