There’s something Sisyphean in the way President Obama is forced by circumstance to address the nation in the face of horrific gun violence. With each new season comes another mass shooting, or perhaps a controversial police killing, and with each tragedy comes another White House statement of sorrow, anger, and resignation. On this issue, Obama has ceased to be a president and now acts as a Greek chorus of sorts, offering his words to the public and speaking for the millions of frustrated Americans who want Washington to do something about the shootings that mark the landscape like a spatter pattern.
“This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub,” said Obama in a statement delivered Sunday. “And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”
Because Americans of all stripes are preoccupied with the White House, it’s easy to treat this as a presidential failure—a lack of will from the White House. How can Obama pass a stimulus and health care reform, but can’t get something as simple and popular as background checks? We saw executive action on climate and on immigration; why can’t we see it on guns too? Why can’t Obama act on policies that are more popular and just as dramatic as anything he’s pursued in seven years at the head of the federal government? What, exactly, is the holdup?
This is infinitely understandable. And at each address on gun violence, if you watch Obama carefully, you can see him grappling with the same questions. Why can’t he do something? But this is a poor avenue for inquiry and the wrong focus for blame. Obama invested tremendous energy into passing new gun policies, pressing Congress on all sides in the wake of Sandy Hook. Republicans wouldn’t budge. And in the absence of their support, the drive failed.
The problem of stricter gun policy isn’t the presidency. It isn’t even Congress. It’s the public, or at least, the part of the public that wants gun control.
Our collective understanding of our politics is saturated in myth. We believe that we are rational (we are not), that we decide on issues not on personality (we do not), that we aren’t rigid partisans to the core (for the most part, we are), and that politicians represent the public at large. The last idea looms large. It is routine, for politicians on both sides, to decry “special interests” as an imposition on the business of government. The proper politician, the honest one, speaks and acts only for “the people,” broadly (and vaguely) defined.
But this is wrong, full stop. American government, from the ground up, is designed around those so-called special interests, from the immense power of Congress and individual legislators, to the two-party system, which aggregates countless goals and preferences into two overall choices. This isn’t a perfect system, but it’s based in sound thinking. The United States is an impossibly large country of people with competing, contradictory, and often antagonistic views and priorities. Ideas and policies that seem popular often aren’t once you drill down to the details, or once they come in conflict with the values, ideals, and identities of an individual, of a family, of a community. The only way to make a country like this work, as a democracy at least, is to accommodate pluralism, encourage compromise, and limit the system’s capacity for rapid change.
What you lose in vigor and unified action you gain in lower stakes. Politics becomes a little less life and death. This arrangement privileges groups that can organize for their advantage. You can call them “interests.” And they often work in concert and alliance with other interests that have similar or compatible goals.
This is another way of saying that, in the American system, public opinion isn’t enough. You also have to have organized actors who can maneuver and agitate at all levels, who can leverage informal and institutional networks to build and shape support among that public, or some of its constituent parts. And in turn, those actors have to have ties to politicians and parties—inherently sympathetic or not—who see some advantage in working for the same goals. (Politicians like to win, after all.) How this looks varies across time and place, but it is the general blueprint, either on the left or on the right, from conservation to the ongoing fight over affirmative action. It’s been true as well for our most profound concerns, like slavery or women’s suffrage.
Or guns. The public supports universal background checks and tighter restrictions on certain kinds of weapons. But American government simply isn’t designed to directly convert public opinion into policy. Instead, it’s a playing field where the greatest advantage goes to the most organized and aggressive interests. Do everything on the clean government agenda—take money out of politics, break up megabanks and monopolies—and that fact is still true.
And what is one of the most organized and aggressive interests in American politics? The gun-rights movement. Not only does it have an institutional representative in the form of the National Rifle Association and the NRA’s most dedicated members—who use every lever of influence, from grassroots action to lobbying, to sway lawmakers at each level of government—but it also occupies an important place in the conservative ideological coalition. This was a product of both direct action (activists within the NRA who worked to align the organization with the Republican Party) and natural affinity. (The kinds of people who backed the NRA were also the kinds of people who voted for conservative Republicans.)
The entire landscape of modern gun politics—from the Republican Party’s commitment to expansive gun rights to the real reticence with which Democrats have largely approached the issue—is a testament to the incredible success of the collective gun rights movement, from individual voters and activists to gun manufacturers and institutional forces like the NRA. President Obama could barnstorm the country and denounce every Republican who opposes background checks, and it wouldn’t change the extent to which the organized gun-rights movement has its fingers on the vital pressure points of American politics.
There is no countervailing equivalent, at least not at the moment. For as much as Americans support stricter gun laws, we lack the kind of dedicated, organized effort that could translate that mood into policy. Sure, there have been moves by Michael Bloomberg to push gun control into the political mainstream, the first real attempt to create a structural counterpart to the gun lobby. But even that is anemic compared with what the NRA and its allies have at their disposal.
So if you support efforts at gun control, don’t look to the president. The answer is to replicate the efforts of the gun-rights movement, from fully aligning the Democratic Party on the side of gun control, to leveraging grassroots action, to pressuring lawmakers, to punishing politicians—left and right—who don’t show the same commitment to restricting gun access. The president plays a part here—particularly in making gun control a Democratic Party priority again—but it’s ultimately a modest one, an advocate’s role.
Major change in the American system is difficult. It took 30 years for a fringe right-wing vision of the Second Amendment—an individual right to bear arms—to become the dominant one, adopted by all sides and ratified by the Supreme Court. It will likely take just as long to reverse that status quo. The past few years of shootings and massacres have galvanized more and more Americans to take action and try to out-organize the gun-rights movement. If those efforts succeed, then this period, which feels like a nadir, doesn’t have to be one.
The only way to make anything happen in American politics—even when the issues are life and death, even when inaction costs lives—is through dedicated, concerted action. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in American history, and it helped produce a cascade of progressive labor law in New York state. But only after ordinary people—through unions and other groups—mobilized to make it happen, winning allies among bureaucrats and social workers and politicos to the cause of reform.
Death alone won’t budge American institutions. Death and the right kind of agitation can be a different story.