A photo from a protest of teens fighting for gun control. Two visible signs say "Fear has no place in school" and "Thoughts and prayers don't save lives. Gun reform will."

Lorie Shaull/cc 2.0

gun sense

Lorie Shaull/cc 2.0

It’s Time to Scare the NRA

Politicians defending guns rights are driven by money. But with the galvanized outcry after Parkland, it's time to motivate them with fear.

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Universal background checks have always been popular, but after last week’s Parkland massacre, they have become more popular than ever. According to a new Q Poll, about 97 percent of respondents, even current gun owners, favor government checks for criminal history before anyone can purchase a gun. Statistically, that’s virtually everyone. Historically, it’s an impossibility. Yet here we are.

Given this, you’d think commonsense firearm restriction would be a slam dunk for politicians serving the majority of their constituencies, but that’s not the case. Take, for instance, what happened in the Florida Legislature. Only days after Nikolas Cruz slaughtered 17 fellow teenagers with an AR 15-style semi-automatic rifle, lawmakers there voted down a proposal to debate banning such weaponry. To repeat: they didn’t vote down a ban. They voted down a debate on a ban. Such is the power of the NRA.

But we need to be clear about why. Yes, the National Rifle Association donates oodles of money to politicians who oppose all manner of gun control, who defy popular opinion by liberalizing gun laws, even in the wake of bloody atrocities, but money does not fully explain their behavior. Politicians in Florida had to make a choice: I can look like A) traitor to the cause of liberty and self-defense or B) a cold-blooded monster. Clearly, the answer was B.

Why is this the case? Let’s put the question another way: who do they fear most? Those who support universal background checks typically do not punish lawmakers who oppose universal background checks, because supporters have multiple and competing political priorities. Gun control is important but other things are, too.

Conversely, those who oppose universal background checks typically do punish lawmakers who support universal background checks, because opponents of gun control typically do not have other reasons to vote. They do not have multiple and competing priorities. They vote up or down based on a candidate’s NRA score. Cast this habit of mind over decades, and you have a mobilized minority of single-issue voters who can make or break a career.

Yes, it’s about money. But more: It’s about fear.

The question then is how do we flip that around? How do we get the majority to strike fear in the hearts of lawmakers who ignore the majority’s demands? I have been writing about gun control regularly since the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, and I have yet to stumble on the answer, because it is enormously difficult to get a distracted majority to focus on gun control with the same laser-precision as the NRA focuses on gun rights and the Second Amendment.

And yet something is happening. Virtually everyone favors background checks. Conservative state legislators in Florida feel heat, even those who withstood pressure after the Orlando massacre. All of a sudden, it appears, a vast majority of people are becoming laser-focused.

Two thoughts as to why. One, the teens who survived the Parkland massacre are speaking in clear political tones, framing the issue as a choice between children and guns. Two, a majority I hope now sees the NRA for what it is. It’s not a gun-rights group. It is the opposition. Its claim to government action is not as legitimate, or pressing, as claims by survivors of mass carnage. Yet neither view would be possible, I think, without Sandy Hook.

Remember what happened. Twenty dead kids were not reason enough for the Congress to do the right thing in early 2013. Former President Barack Obama pleaded for universal background checks. Senate Republicans were united in saying no. Afterward, the NRA found ways to leverage 20 dead kids to justify liberalized gun laws in some states, allowing guns in schools and churches, making conditions optimal for more and more frequent death.

Only from this political context, we can properly understand how teen survivors of the Parkland massacre are having such impact so quickly. The NRA, in point of fact, already decided in 2012 to stand against children. But when teen survivors skilled at social media say the same thing, the truth of the matter becomes wholly authentic and enormously powerful. Moreover, they are setting aside warnings and going straight for declarations of political war. Delaney Tarr, a Stoneman Douglas High School senior, said Wednesday: “We’ve had enough of thoughts and prayers…we are coming after every single one of you and demanding that you take action, demanding that you make a change.”

We know they are moving the gun debate, because virtually everyone favors background checks now and because the pro-gun opposition has been seeking ways to discredit a message that’s unimpeachably credible.

Will change happen? I don’t know. I do know the time for civil discourse came and went in early 2012 after the last handful of dirt was thrown on the last dead kid’s casket. Now’s not the time for civility. Now’s the time for rage.

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