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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The gun debate is broken

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It’s popular to ascribe our dysfunctional political environment to polarization. It’s easy to attribute congressional inaction to divided government and arcane legislative procedures. And it’s simple to blame the other party for everything.

The debate over gun policy in the US today represents the worst of it. In a 2015 Gallup poll, 55% of respondents supported laws on gun sales that were more strict, while only 11% supported laws that were less strict. Yet, in the three years since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the only gun-related legislation to pass Congress dealt with plastic firearms.

The division and inaction are so entrenched that the national conversation around guns is worse than polarized: it’s stagnated and broken.

Both parties deserve a share of the blame for letting it get this bad. On the right, the Republican Party has made the entire issue of guns toxic by using “gun control” language in reference to proposals on topics ranging from assault weapons to gun show purchases to ammunition restrictions. Militaristic images of President Obama alongside calls that “Obama is coming for our guns” are disingenuous, meant only to frighten uninformed potential voters. The Republican Party has gone beyond building support for strong gun ownership protections and turned conservatives against President Obama, the Democratic Party, and liberals and progressives.

The Democratic Party, for its part, has built an honest messaging strategy around “gun safety,” which is reflected in policy proposals like bans on background checks, assault weapons, and armor-piercing ammunition. However, President Obama cited tragedies including Sandy Hook and Charleston in defense of his executive orders announced in January, even though it remains unclear if they would have actually prevented those tragedies.

Sandy Hook and Charleston are two major items on a too-long list of gun-enabled tragedies that constitute a clear message to Washington that change is necessary. But using tragedy as evidence of a problem that a proposal wouldn’t solve is inappropriate politicization.

It would be impossible to assess national gun politics without discussing money. After last December’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, CA, ThinkProgress’ Igor Volsky responded to tweets from 72 politicians who had offered “thoughts and prayers” with the amount of money they had received from NRA in 2014, adding that the NRA spent over $30 million in independent expenditures during the 2014 election cycle. With that much money and public opinion not necessarily on the same page, one can’t help but wonder whether the NRA is acting in the interests of its members.

On the left, billionaire and former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, has poured money into his political non-profit organization Everytown for Gun Safety and its subsidiary Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Former US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and her husband Mark Kelly lead Americans for Responsible Solutions, a non-profit organization and super PAC they started two years after Rep. Giffords survived a gunshot wound and one month after Sandy Hook.

If money is speech, as the Supreme Court has held for 40 years, then our elected officials are hearing a lot of noise about guns. And with this level of noise, nothing really gets through. An additional dollar has such a small impact that it’s barely worth spending. At this point, neither side’s money actually does anything constructive; it just prevents the other side’s dollars from pulling ahead.

One phenomenon that’s easy to forget is that as a politician, all the gun-related campaign money you rake in comes from one side, presumably the side you already support. So the only incentive as a politician is to put that money into communications and advocacy around your position on the issue. But ultimately, all that money and communication strategy becomes a lot of talking, but who’s listening?

In the world of an optimist, the answer is that the voters are listening. In the world of an idealist, they’re also engaging in thoughtful and nuanced dialogue with each other and with their representatives. In this world, we don’t know the extent to which any of those are true. But we do know that the way to make meaningful change is by engaging those with a stake in the issue and creating space for those who care but are uninformed an opportunity to change those circumstances so that they too can participate in the democratic process.

With the White House and Senate potentially up for grabs this November, the overarching question remains; will 2016 bring meaningful change on gun policy? On the Democratic side, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy may have proven in 2014 that tightening gun laws can be an asset by turning the light red Sandy Hook area blue and increasing his margin of victory five fold from 2010 (disclosure: I worked for the Connecticut Democratic Party during the 2014 election cycle). Now, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken a strong stance on the issue and challenged Sen. Bernie Sanders over his more moderate record.

Among the Republicans, the race to stand with the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms is moving full speed ahead. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has positioned himself to the right of the NRA, and Ohio Gov. Kasich has established himself as “pro-gun” after losing the NRA’s endorsement in his first run for governor just six years ago. The other Republican candidates fall somewhere in between these two.

The fact that both parties have seriously taken up the issue of guns could mean that an overwhelming victory for one party would constitute a mandate. But unless one party controls both houses of Congress and the White House in 2017, the stakes will likely remain too high for either party to concede defeat. As legendary Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully once said, “Losing feels worse than winning feels good.”

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