There’s absolutely no way to process Newtown. Anyone who claims there is, or tries to assign some kind of idea or causation to it, is wrong. There is no clear motive. Here’s a list of things that were blamed aside from guns, including video games, Hollywood, school curriculum, homosexuality, and Fisher Price. We probably keep trying to know because it’s all so senseless. Numerically, many other events in American/world history have been more tragic; because of the content and the context, sometimes Newtown feels like the worst thing of all.
What we do know is that, since last year at this time, nothing has really happened on “gun control” issues. (Actually, Congress did renew a ban on plastic guns in this time frame.) We’ve had different major politicians, from Bloomberg to Harry Reid, call out their own for failure to pass gun control. If you Google anything around the topic, there are roughly 5,000 different points of view, and that might be the actual issue here. More on that in a second.
Back in 2000, Republican strategist and NRA board member Grover Norquist summed it up nicely, saying, “The question is intensity versus preference. You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favor of some gun controls. But are they going to vote on their ‘control’ position?” Though many voters back gun control, says Norquist, their support doesn’t really motivate them when they go to the polls. “But for that 4-5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this.”
Things have hardly changed since Norquist made those comments. The NRA’s job is made easier because it can target its resources at the three dozen swing districts like a military strategist dividing quadrants on a battlefield. That allows a small number of NRA voters to form a potent single-issue voting bloc, since a change in 5 percent of the vote in any swing district can make all the difference. The NRA has power not so much because of its deep pockets but because of the fundamental design of our geographic-based political map in which representatives are elected in single-seat, winner-take-all districts.
Many Democrats believe that strong support for gun control has cost their party key elections in such rural states as West Virginia, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. They believe that Al Gore lost the presidential election in 2000 in his home state of Tennessee because he was on the wrong side of this issue.
That led to Democrats ducking and even pandering on this issue. Who can forget the ridiculous sight of John Kerry trumpeting his own prowess as a gun owner when he ran for president in 2004. When Democrats regained the House after the 2006 elections, they did so largely based on victories by Democrats winning in Republican-leaning districts. Knowing that support for gun control could cause them to lose their race, no matter how broad national support was, most of those winning Democrats backed the NRA positions.
Now consider this article from The Washington Post:
One in five gun owners say they’ve called, written or emailed a public official to express their views on the gun issue. Just one in 10 of those in households without a gun say the same. The disparity is even greater when it comes to making donations to organizations involved in the issue; 19 percent of gun owners say they’ve given money while just 4 percent in non-gun households say the same.
All of these numbers illustrate the crux of the divide between public opinion and political action on guns. While majorities of the public support things like expanded background checks, banning or limiting high capacity magazines and reinstituting the assault weapons ban, they — by and large — don’t feel passionately about any of it. Those opposed to such measures are smaller in numbers but extremely passionate.
What that means for a politician is this: Voting against gun control measures may well carry less negative political consequence than voting for them — even though the poll numbers suggest the opposite is true.
Passion is the coin of the realm in understanding voters — and how politicians react to them. And on guns, the passion is strongly on the side of those who want to keep any new gun laws off the books.
Those two basically sum up the contextual side of the political part of this equation: essentially, it’s a small number of people but a small, passionate number of people who ultimately help control the political balance of power. Sidebar to that which is interesting: if this is truly the least effective Congress ever, and partisan stuff seems to only be ramping up, who really cares who controls the balance of power anyway? (I know that’s essentially a dumb question.)
There’s a lot of rancor on the Internet about red states and blue states and agendas and Obama ducking issues and ties between religion and guns, ties between illiteracy and guns, guns don’t kill people but rather people kill people, etc, etc. The politics of the situation is a mess. It’s not going to change. People want to win elections, and they don’t want to alienate those that can help them win. That’s human nature and politics rolled into a ball. We’re not really solving that anytime soon.
I actually think one of the bigger issues here comes back to definition, or focus. Let me give you an example that may seem trite on the surface, but bear with me. I’m looking for a job right now. I’ve done a lot of different shit in my life, and I have a broad skill base (or so I’d like to humbly claim). I’ve been a teacher, a blogger, a social media guy, a TV guy, an organizational development guy, etc. My resume’s a cluttered mess — just like how we talk about gun violence. “It’s not guns, it’s Hollywood!” “It’s not guns, it’s X-Box!” “Guns aren’t the issue, mental health is!” Right. Well, you know what happens when you apply for jobs or network with people and you’re not focused on one specific type of goal or job? They don’t care. They start ignoring you. It gets too confusing for them; you can’t be neatly placed into a bucket where they’re like, “Oh, OK, so he wants this job and should talk to this person.” We’re often taught that providing choice and options is good, but in many ways, ’tis bad — people can’t deal with so many different ideas or concepts. They often just want a singular focus to believe and follow through on. I think that’s part of the issue with gun control. You’re never going to eliminate guns, so let’s focus ourselves on one thing. Let’s make it “guns get taxed, that taxation money goes towards higher salaries and better facilities in the mental health field.” Something like that. A singular focus so that the narrative can stop going in 1,000 different directions — because when you’re blaming gays for Sandy Hook, then blaming Microsoft for Sandy Hook, eventually everyone’s just tuning out the discussion and focusing back on their day-to-day life.
Newtown was an absolutely awful thing. It’s nearly impossible to get your head around it at all. There’s almost nothing about any second of it, from start to finish, that makes sense. And you know what? It could happen this Monday in some school in any state in the union just as quickly, just as easily, and with just as many Obama tears and Scott Pelley live-shots and six months after that one, we’ll still be breathlessly analyzing Ted Cruz’s actions and not talking about guns then either. The basics aren’t going to ever change, so maybe we need to focus on branding the issue in a way that would drive more support, in a logical way, towards a less-violent, more empathetic society. Am I describing utopia? Probably. But we can certainly be closer to that than where we’re at a year after Sandy Hook.