Another “Turning Point Myth” in the Political Battle over Gun Control?

Parkland is increasingly portrayed as the mass shooting that will finally change things, but are pro-gun supporters right to claim that it is but another headline that gun control advocates are allegedly peddling will bring stricter gun control laws?

Following the Orlando massacre of 2016, there was some hope that hearts and minds, the culture around guns, would finally change in turn facilitating significant policy reforms. In a Washington Post op-ed,  Jennifer Carlson and I noted that for the first time in a string of tragic mass shootings, the LGBTQ2 community –  no stranger to political mobilization – was brought into the gun debate. It’s a constituency with the political know-how and resources, experienced in challenging existing cultural and institutional arrangements. Following our op-ed, we received comments like “Dear NRA, we made it through Stonewall, AIDS, DADT, and through Marriage Equality. You’re next.”

But, the obstacles, at least as we saw them, had less to do with the LGBTQ2 community fighting against the NRA per se – an organization with very deep pockets and strong ties to policymakers. Instead, as I noted in my 2016 Mobilizing Ideas follow-up, the ability of the gay and lesbian rights movement to fight against gun culture lies in its experience transforming what it means to “do politics” in America. That is, they helped redefine American culture. The NRA is a worthy opponent not only because of its political influence, but because of the cultural change it helped foster around guns and identity.

As Carlson importantly noted in her book, the NRA over the last fifty years has convinced many Americans that gun ownership is a vital tool for self-defence and the key to serving as a responsible “citizen-protector.” We find this in the narrative told by those opposing any attempt to implement new laws or change existing gun-related legislation; that in light of these tragedies, “having a well-armed citizenry is more important than ever.” Recently, Rush Limbaugh and others proposed their own solution to the problem of mass shootings: arm the teachers. “We need concealed carry” in schools Limbaugh said on Fox News Sunday. President Trump apparently seems to agree claiming that “A gun-free zone to a maniac, because they’re all cowards, a gun-free zone is ‘let’s go in and attack.”

Parkland may be different than Orlando. It is youthful mobilization of about-to-be voters fed up with the status quo with a lot at stake in the issue. They are members of a generation often criticized for being self-absorbed and when they do express their discontent, their efforts are characterized as “slacktivism.” They are demanding their voices be heard. They are genuinely motivated by the belief that if they do not act, no one else will. They have emerged as a new political “constituency” calling out lawmakers who receive donations from the NRA threatening them with the future exercise of their franchise. They have been called “innovators in protest tactics” but while they may be masters at harnessing the  power of social media to get their message across, they have also demonstrated savviness by invoking “old school” approaches like marches and walk-outs.

Parkland activists recently met with Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub shooting victims. In a show of support, one Pulse survivor told activists that “We’re gonna speak loud … We’re not gonna knock on doors, we’re gonna knock down some doors. And we’re gonna make sure that we are heard.”

These young activists may, however, still need the help of those who are already in a position to change the composition of Congress in November, as one former Florida GOP Representative, David Jolly, recommended to those seeking to change gun laws. They may be able to loosen the chokehold the NRA has on legislators, but the fundamental question about whether their efforts are enough to change gun identity politics remains. Will we have meaningful institutional reforms if deep-seated cultural attitudes and values underpinning them remain the same?

Equally important is whether their mobilizing efforts will be coopted by small policy changes – “tinkering around the edges” – compromising over small legislative steps pre-empting more significant policy change. Summarizing policy solutions raised by Marco Rubio at the Parkland town hall, Richard Wolffe called these “token concessions that would not do very much at all to stop the massacres: raising the age you could buy an assault weapon, but not banning them. Better background checks, but not universal ones. Stopping the sale of bump stocks, which played no part in the bloodshed at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school.”

Many have commented on why the NRA should now be worried: some of it having to do with current mobilizing efforts by young activists, and some of it having to do with problems the organization itself faces (e.g., its single-issue focus, its ties almost exclusively to one party, its already maximized political support, etc.). Whatever the case, one possible sign of desperation by pro-gun activists and right-wing leaders is the casting of these activists as actors, “pawns and conspiracists”  in an attempt to discredit their experiences, grievances, and collective action.

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