Congress is not going to pass universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, or any other gun control legislation opposed by the National Rifle Association this year. If that’s how those participating in, or supportive of, the various gun control marches across the country this past weekend measure their success, they will be disappointed. But if they view the marches as a marker in the long and arduous process of inverting gun politics toward increasing regulation, then they might be onto something.
One of several reasons that Congress won’t pass any further, polarizing gun control legislation later this year is that Congress is just about done legislating until the midterms. Last week’s omnibus spending bill was seen as lawmakers’ last opportunity to enact their top priorities. The next 7½ months will be consumed with the following, in order: posturing for primary elections, August recess, posturing for the general election, and October recess.
It would be easy to mock organizers of the March for Our Lives for scheduling their rally one day after Congress had finished legislating for the year. Whether it was intentional or not, though, the timing did affect what made it into the bill. The omnibus included the Fix NICS Act, a piece of modest legislation aimed at shoring up the federal instant background check database, as well a bill from Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch offering federal money to improve school safety. Some language was added alongside the Dickey Amendment noting that nothing bars the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence.
It is probably not a coincidence that these items made it into law just as Republican communications teams in Washington began brainstorming their statements ahead of the march and before members had to return home to face their constituents over the next two weeks.
“Keeping our children safe is a top priority of the President’s, which is why he urged Congress to pass the Fix NICS and STOP School Violence Acts, and signed them into law,” White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said in a White House statement on Saturday. Walters also noted that the Department of Justice, at the president’s urging, had issued a rule on Friday to ban bump stocks.
To the marchers on Saturday, these measures amount to little more than legislative face-saving. The NRA supported Fix NICS as well as administrative action on bump stocks, and likely still feels comfortable in its ability to pressure the CDC away from ambitious projects researching gun violence.
The most significant accomplishment of the recent anti-gun activism hasn’t been additional regulation—it’s been the successful blocking of additional deregulation. When House leaders chose to put Fix NICS into the omnibus, but not legislation that would require states to honor concealed-carry licenses in other states, which leaders had previously demanded be lumped together, they essentially conceded defeat on the NRA’s top legislative priority. And if the NRA isn’t getting it done in this Congress, it’s probably not getting it done in any Congress for the foreseeable future.
But what would it take for Congress to pass legislation that the NRA actively opposes?
Last month, after President Trump backed away from his all-too-brief flirtation with gun control legislation following a couple of meetings with the NRA, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy told reporters that he wasn’t surprised. Murphy said he believes “it will likely take an election where they pay a price for their fealty to the gun lobby” before NRA-inclined legislators oppose the group’s priorities.
The March for Our Lives is a step toward creating such an election. The surge in gun-related activism is something that students, many of whom will be of voting age for the first time this fall, will hold as a formative political experience that catalyzes them into both voting and urging their friends to vote. And many of the key pickup opportunities for Democrats this fall will be in suburban districts, where voters are already turning against the GOP. Those voters are less likely to be NRA members and more inclined to be angry that Congress hasn’t done more to reduce gun violence. Suburban parents could be especially important, if they blame lawmakers for not protecting children following the latest massacre in a classroom.
With seven months until Election Day, that scenario is still a far-off hypothetical. But if Republicans wake up on Wednesday, Nov. 7, and have data showing that their inability to consider universal background checks cost them seats—and possibly even the House majority—then you might see some action.
If Democrats do take the House and can pass a background checks bill, enough vulnerable Republican senators up for re-election in 2020 might join Democrats to provide 60 votes in the Senate.
The Republican response to previous bursts of gun control activism has always been “prove it.” Gun control activists never have. Is this the year?