Why the gun control crowd doesn't win

I’m dispassionate about gun control. I don’t have strong feelings about it or gun rights either. I can see both sides of these arguments. I probably lean a little toward gun rights advocates because I do believe the Second Amendment’s main purpose is to be a protection against tyranny. That said, we already have some reasonable restrictions on weapons ownership, so I’m perfectly willing to listen to and perhaps be persuaded by arguments for more reasonable restrictions to be passed.

You would think, in the wake of horrible shootings such as the recent one in Orlando, that I’d be among those easily pulled to the gun control side of the debate. Yet…I’m not. Here are the reasons I’m unpersuaded, along with advice to gun control advocates on how to change that. I realize these points might not win me any friends here at Red State, but we’ve had our disagreements before, and I know you’re a civil bunch of debaters.

Gun control should not be a partisan issue. Sit down, because I’m going to go on about this a bit —  This is my biggest problem with most gun control messages I see. They’re not so much pro gun control as anti…Republican. Or anti conservative. Certainly they’re anti-NRA (more on that below).

I’ve worked in issues advocacy, and while you often do find most of your supporters and opponents falling along party lines at the legislative level, you have to keep in mind that you’re trying to put pressure on those legislators through public demand. And among your public are both Democrats and Republicans. If you’re constantly using your issue as a weapon to bludgeon the opposing political “team,” you lose members of that team in the general public.

One way to ensure your advocacy doesn’t become partisan — go after members of your own political team with the same vigor you use on the opposing one in your way. This is a tactic, by the way, the NRA uses. They helped get a very famous progressive elected to Congress after the Republican incumbent didn’t vote their way on gun issues. That progressive? Bernie Sanders. He defeated a GOP congressman with the help of the NRA when he ran for the House back in the 1990s.

If gun control advocates are serious, they have to be serious about voting out of office Democrats who don’t work vigorously enough for their issue. They have to voice their displeasure with Democrats who won’t move incremental gun control issues forward, but are perfectly happy to raise money off the issue.

As I’ve noted already, the Senate recently voted on four gun control measures, two sponsored by Dems, two by Republicans. The Republicans are in the majority and their measures would have passed with a filibuster-proof majority if a handful of Democrats had crossed over to vote with them. Nope. It was more important for Dems to use the  issue to fund-raise than to actually do something about it. Gun control advocates have to be prepared to take those Dems to task for that behavior. Otherwise, they’re not really gun control advocates. They’re Democratic Party activists, and they just haven’t realized it yet.

Gun control shouldn’t be just anti-NRA: A common meme on social media after a mass shooting involves photos and messages about all the legislators “bought” by the NRA. Most of them are Republicans, of course, because many Republicans do happen to agree with the NRA on Second Amendment issues. So, once again, this type of messaging reads to someone like me as just more of the same gun-control-as-Republican–bashing.

If you’ve seen a single NRA television ad, you see a variety of folks–from Holocaust survivors to ordinary citizens–who believe they shouldn’t have their gun rights taken away because an evil person used a gun to do harm.

The NRA is effective, yes. But that doesn’t make them evil, and when I see messages that stray in that direction, I tune out, thinking how easy it is to “win” arguments with your followers when you paint your advocates as not wrong but dark-hearted. For a good view of what’s off with this argument, take a look at this passage of a review by David Cole in the New York Review of Books of three books on guns:

The NRA may advocate for an individual right, but its influence derives precisely from collective democratic action. Far from threatening democracy, it expertly deploys the techniques of majoritarian politics. The NRA has achieved its victories not by threats of insurrection but through the classic methods of democracy: debate, dialogue, lobbying, and electioneering. Its source of strength lies not in the weapons its members own or carry, but in the votes they cast and the arguments they make.

Gun control advocates will not make progress until they recognize that the NRA’s power lies in the appeal of its ideas, its political engagement and acumen, and the intense commitments of its members. Until gun control advocates can match these features, they are unlikely to make much progress.

Gun control advocates need to demonstrate how the latest gun control measure would have prevented the mass shootings they exploit to push for their issue: Even the measures to restrict gun ownership from those on terror or no-fly watch lists wouldn’t necessarily have prevented the Orlando shooter from getting his hands legally on guns. So if that’s the case, aren’t we punishing people who did no harm for the harm that he did?

I’ve seen a few gun control ideas floated around in the past several months that, to me, make sense. One was to make gun owners more legally liable if they sell a gun to someone who does harm, just the way bartenders and the like are held liable for selling liquor to folks they know are drunk and about to get in a car. This was an idea, by the way, that I read in a conservative magazine. It didn’t get much play, and I cynically think the reason is that Democrats are loath to move on measures like this when they don’t come from their own team–since gun control seems to be a fund-raising tool for their team. I’ve also read of some measures to strengthen involuntary commitment laws involving the mentally ill, and, of course, the modest measures sponsored by GOP Senators to at least delay gun purchases for people on terror and no-fly lists. These are small steps, but some of them could help.

These are only three points about the gun control debate where I think gun control advocates go wrong. What I see now in this arena isn’t so much a debate about the issue but a clever use of the issue by one team — Democrats — to score points and raise money. I keep waiting for gun control advocates to wake up to this reality and hold them to account. When they do, I’ll start paying more attention to the solutions they offer.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.