Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Politics as Usual in the Gun Control Debate

By Alex GoldsteinPublished November 9, 2014

Despite the prevalence of gun violence in American culture, efforts to reform gun control policy have been largely subsumed by electoral politics at the federal level.

By Alex Goldstein, 11/9/2014

Early in President Obama's second term, gun control seemed to be a potentially defining issue of his presidency.  Following the tragic mass-shooting in an Aurora, Colorado movie theatre in 2012, a shooting in Tucson, Arizona that nearly killed US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and, of course, the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which twenty children were killed, public sentiment appeared to begin shifting in favor of greater regulation in the gun industry.  And yet, despite 90% public support for legislation that would require background checks on gun buyers, Congress has failed to make progress in ensuring the safety of the American public.  Even more disheartening, in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, the nation's politicians either lost interest in this issue or chose not to pursue it in fear of alienating swing-voters.

This complacency, particularly on the part of Democrats, reflects the alarming reality that widespread gun violence has become an accepted and almost expected feature American society.  Gun control has largely fallen out of public discussion, not only by politicians vying for a win in the midterm elections, but also by the Democratic leadership in Washington DC.  President Obama has not made a public statement condemning this type of gun violence and largely avoided weighing in on domestic issues in the midst of a dismal midterm season for Democrats.  

This disregard of gun control is not entirely surprising.  Entering the midterm elections on November 4th, Democrats faced increasingly low chances of keeping a majority in the Senate.  Obama's low approval ratings coupled with party polarization and the Democrats' relatively weak candidates led to concerns over the Obama administration's ability to work with an opposition Congress.  Therefore, the Democratic Party's top priority was to win as many Senate seats as possible, rather than to promote gun control legislation that was not urgent for many undecided voters.

What is so disturbing about America's gun policy has been that very political nature that it takes.  Rather than being framed as an essential part of the protection of the American people, gun control has become a fad that ebbs and flows with the changing tides of the political current.  This can be seen in Gabby Gifford's "rather unremarkable" nine-state tour in which she attempted to push gun control and candidates who support it.  An Iowa lawmaker and Democrat claimed that associating oneself with Giffords and her policies was "risky 15 days before an election."  The sad truth remains that politics continues to take precedence over even the most troubling problems facing America today.

The future prospects of viable and successful national gun control legislation remain bleak.  After a crushing defeat for Democrats in the midterm elections, a newly elected Republican-controlled Senate will be highly unlikely to act in opposition to the NRA and other gun lobbies.  Additionally, with economic issues at the forefront of the midterm elections, it seems that gun control has once again lost the interest of the American public and media.

The state of Washington, however, provides hope after adopting Initiative 594, a measure that appeared directly on the ballot requiring criminal background checks on gun sales within the state, by a 60 percent margin on Election Day.  Gun control remains an important issue in Washington in the wake of a recent high school shooting, in which two fourteen year olds were killed.  This Initiative represents a strong step forward in gun control legislation, as well as a unique strategy to circumvent the often lethargic political processes of Washington DC.  Like in the cases of increasing minimum wage and marijuana legalization, gun reform will come about most efficiently and effectively by empowering the public to decide directly.