When a disgruntled former high school student in Parkland last year killed 17 people, it seemed certain to change the parameters of the gun debate in America — particularly when the attack’s passionate teenage survivors swarmed social media with demands for new restrictions on firearms.
They raised millions of dollars, registered tens of thousands of young voters, hired a Washington lobbyist and dramatically confronted pro-gun politicians on TV.
President Donald Trump gave them a White House audience and a sympathetic ear, then scolded lawmakers for being “petrified” of the National Rifle Association. Even Florida, cradle of “Stand Your Ground“ laws, where the NRA wields enormous influence, passed a ballyhooed gun law with Parkland parents invited to the signing.
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But a year later, 2018 looks a lot like 1929, when Americans were shocked and appalled by the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. And 1968, in the wake of the political assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. And 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was nearly killed by a crazed man trying to impress an actress. And 1999, 2007 and 2012, when school slaughters across the country took a total of 74 lives.
Bills got passed, including the National Firearms Act in 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968 after the assassinations, and the Brady Bill, named for Reagan’s wounded press secretary, James Brady. Often, they were eroded by subsequent court rulings and legislative counterattacks.
Some of the post-Parkland state laws are already under assault, including the Florida statute raising the age for some gun purchases and making it easier for police to take firearms from those with mental illnesses: A number of legislative leaders say a bill, already filed, that would roll back many of its provisions stands a reasonable chance of passing.
In Florida, where the rampage occurred, the gubernatorial candidate more closely aligned with the Parkland kids lost a squeaker election to NRA-endorsed Ron DeSantis.
As for the president, less than three months after he needled lawmakers for genuflecting to the gun lobby, Trump spoke before the NRA’s convention in Dallas, receiving a rapturous reception.
And the steady drumbeat of death continued. The Trace, a nonprofit news organization that reports on firearm issues, tracked the number of child gun deaths in the one-year-period commencing with the Feb. 14, 2018, date of the mass shooting. The organization partnered with McClatchy to produce a series of stories on the findings, including 100-word portraits of every victim, written by students.
“The Parkland shootings were terrible,” said Carl T. Bogus, author of “The Second Amendment in Law and History,” and a professor at Roger Williams University’s law school in Rhode Island. “But it’s not the first time something terrible has happened involving guns and the nation has not taken action.”
To be sure, there are plenty of people working for greater restrictions on guns who disagree with Bogus, many of them quite vehemently.
“That’s just plain wrong, wrong, wrong!” Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was one of the Parkland victims, said of the idea that Parkland wasn’t a turning point. “If you look at the elections last year that flipped the House, it was all the guys the voters fired for being pro-gun and all the ones who were elected for favoring more gun-safety regulation that made it happen.
“A majority of Americans are with us now. I think we’ll see the Senate follow in the next election, and we’ll pass some gun legislation, and Trump will sign it if he’s still around because he’ll want the credit. And if he’s not still around, a Democrat will do it.”
By the count of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, started after U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords was gravely wounded during a mass shooting in a supermarket parking lot, 67 laws were passed at the state level to restrict access (mostly by domestic abusers and mental patients) to guns and accessories that make them fire faster). And, Giffords officials note, 101 candidates they endorsed — all fervent supporters of gun restrictions, or as many activists prefer to call it, gun safety — won their races in midterm elections.
Democratic control of the House will make it nearly impossible to pass any pro-gun legislation, said Peter Ambler, the Giffords executive director, and more broadly is the signal that a new day is dawning on the politics of guns.
“Americans are just fed up,” he said. “We had a record number of candidates run on this as an issue. There were literally 44 times more campaign ads run on gun safety than in the last midterm. That’s candidates putting their money where their mouth is, and even more, where the voters are. You don’t spend money unless you think it’s bringing you votes.”
But there are other sides to nearly every one of these political coins. The party holding the White House frequently loses strength in midterm elections, and President Trump and his party faced opposition on many issues, not just guns. And the division in Congress cuts both ways: Republican control of the Senate will hobble any anti-gun legislation from Democrats.
Despite the focus on registering young people after Parkland, some polls have suggested that millennials have no greater inclination toward supporting gun legislation than the public at large.
And while the Giffords center boasts that 101 candidates it endorsed won election, they’re split among 50 states and the District of Columbia — an average of less than two per jurisdiction.
Some battle-scarred warriors of the great gun campaigns say the Parkland shootings, terrible as they were, were too confusing to work as the motivation for a campaign against guns.
“You had too many causes,” said Stephen P. Halbrook, an attorney who has won courtroom victories for the NRA and has written several books about the history of guns and gun control. “The more we learned, the more things went wrong.
“Everybody has seen those videos of the police sitting around outside rather than going in where the shooting was. And though the killer was obviously crazy, the mental health system had not confined him. There was a lot going on there to say that it was just about the availability of guns.”
In some ways, the Parkland shootings have had more of a direct impact than past mass shootings After the mass murder of school children in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, there was modest legislation at the national level on guns but considerable political realignment. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., elected just a month earlier, turned into a staunch advocate of laws restricting guns. And activists founded two new groups, Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords, that would become major players in the politics of guns. The gun-control movement also shifted strategies, mostly abandoning efforts at the federal level to work for new laws at the local and state levels, with some success.
Parkland, on the other hand, did result in 69 different gun control laws passing state legislatures, including 18 in Republican-controlled states. But many of them were measures that didn’t generate stiff opposition from gun-rights supporters, including bans on bump stocks — devices that help guns fire faster — and so-called red-flag laws that make it easier for cops to take weapons from domestic abusers and those with mental illnesses.
When it comes to the real meat of the gun debate, Halbrook thinks, there’s just a general inertia.
“The Republicans aren’t going to get anything they want, and the Democrats aren’t going to get anything they want,” he said.
For better or for worse, America’s gun debate — mired in cultural, political and legal bogs — went on much as it has for the previous 90 years, anchored within a political inch or two of the status quo.
”The political landscape has changed much, not in the past year, not in a long, long time,” said Gary Kleck, a professor emeritus at Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “In this debate, facts don’t matter. Nothing matters but ideology.”
For decades, gun-control advocates had argued that governments could legally put restrictions — even severe ones — on gun ownership because the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment language guaranteeing “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” referred to state militias and didn’t mean individual citizens had a right to own or carry guns.
But that argument has been steamrolled by two Supreme Court decisions — District of Columbia vs. Heller, in 2008, and McDonald vs. Chicago, in 2010 — that established for the first time an unequivocal right of individuals to keep guns in their homes for self-defense.
“I think the Supreme Court is wrong, but it gets to make the law of the land,” Bogus said.
Bogus believes a case that the Supreme Court has just agreed to consider, a lawsuit seeking to strike down a New York City law that makes it difficult to legally take a gun outside the home, is likely to deal another blow to the cause of gun regulation.
“It could have a great effect on restrictions on concealed carrying of guns,” Bogus said.
The Heller and McDonald cases were decided long before President Trump took office. But because federal judges serve lifetime terms, his generally conservative and pro-gun judicial appointments — more than 80 confirmed so far, with more than 50 awaiting Senate approval — could profoundly influence the gun debate for decades to come, hemming in the ability of Congress and state legislatures to pass laws on firearms.
“This is a debate where the two sides barely regard one another as decent human beings,” said Tom Palmer, a gun-rights-supporting political scientist and vice president of the free-market think tank Atlas Network. “The gun-control people see their opponents as people who don’t care about human life, and the gun-rights people see their opponents as people who don’t care about human freedom.”
Gun control first turned into a political issue during the crime wave triggered by rival gangs of bootleggers during Prohibition in the 1920s, particularly their indiscriminate shootouts with the so-called Tommy gun, a military submachine gun that arrived barely too late for World War I.
The Tommy gun was a fully automatic weapon — that is, it kept firing as long as a gunman had his finger on the trigger, 600 or more rounds a minute. In 1929, Tommy guns were among the weapons used by Chicago gangster Al Capone’s men to murder seven members of the rival mob of Bugs Moran, and the first gun-control battle in American history was on.
In many ways, the attempt to get Tommy guns off the streets foreshadowed all the gun-control initiatives to come.
The gun’s main defender was a heretofore mostly apolitical group of sportsmen called the National Rifle Association, which managed to stave off an outright ban in favor of a then-whopping $200 tax on the weapons that doubled their price and generally kept them out of private hands.
And, as would be the case with many more gun control measures over the years, there was no agreement afterward about whether the new law worked.
Since 1934, federal gun laws have generally followed the same pattern, becoming a bit more restrictive one time, a bit less the next. Gun-control supporters won what seemed like a big victory in 1968, in the wake of the Kennedy and King assassinations, when Congress made it illegal to sell guns across state lines. But much of the law was junked eight years later.
Another apparent milestone for gun-control forces came in 1994. After several mass shootings committed with military-style rifles known as assault weapons, Congress banned them. But because many of the features used to define the term “assault weapon” were aesthetic rather than functional — like, say, a bayonet mount or a pistol grip — manufacturers found it easy to evade the law by dropping them. The law had a sunset provision that required Congress to renew it after 10 years, which didn’t happen.
And along the way, the debates have grown ever more poisonous. Many analysts say gun regulation is no longer a policy debate but another battle in America’s long-running cultural wars, even a fight about what it means to be an American.
“If it’s about the meaning of the Second Amendment, it’s a meaning of the nation’s founding document,” said Emma Long, who teaches American Studies at Great Britain’s University of East Anglia and has written extensively about the politics of guns.
“It makes compromise harder; how are you going to compromise your founding ideals? I suspect it would be easier if you could take the Second Amendment out of the debate, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.”