No, the Gun Culture Won’t Always Win

After another mass shooting, this time in Virginia Beach, the world looks bleak. But hope is on the horizon.

The municipal building, the scene of the shooting, surrounded by yellow tape
A longtime city employee opened fire at the municipal building yesterday. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

Too many guns.

Too little hope.

After each succeeding gun massacre, a dull fatalism grips the American mind. The victims of such massacres are counted in the thousands; the victims of individual murder, of suicide, and of heartrending accident by now are counted in the tens of thousands. Yet action to save lives is vetoed again and again by an implacable minority who see gun ownership as integral to their identity.

Political realists have surrendered: Nothing can be done. The gun always wins.

Yet the realists may themselves be falling out of date.

The National Rifle Association is in crisis. The corruption and self-dealing that have pervaded the organization have exploded into public view. Perhaps it is no surprise that a bad cause attracts bad people. What is a surprise is that those bad people have incurred serious legal risks, sustaining their financially troubled organization with transfers from its charitable foundation—more than $100 million since 2012. (Because the NRA engages in political activity, donations to the NRA are not tax deductible; donations to the charitable foundation are.) Such transfers are closely hemmed by law, and it does not seem that the NRA has been careful about the law.

The political map of the country is changing. The gun lobby used to be bipartisan. John Dingell, the legendary union Democrat from Michigan, served on the NRA’s board until 1994. An avid hunter, he earned an A+ rating from the lobby for many years. He helped lead Congress the NRA’s way against gun-safety proposals after the massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech. But as the Democratic Party has become more urban—and as the NRA has veered ever more unmistakably toward white nationalism—the gun movement’s power has become tied ever more tightly to the Republican Party’s prospects. Those are seriously dimming. Democrats won more than 300 state legislative seats in 2018. They hold a majority of state attorney generalships. Republican-leaning women who used to accept NRA gun policy as part of the conservative coalition that held down their taxes have rebelled against the coalition in the age of Trump. Women are not only voting differently, but running for office in unprecedented numbers—and even fairly conservative women have zero use for the violent politics of the gun.

Hundreds of thousands of students have been through active-shooter drills—and their parents are angry about it. Only about one-third of U.S. parents now express confidence that their children are safe in school. The gun lobby may argue that the parents are overreacting, based on over-reading isolated incidents. That’s true, but it’s wonderfully ironic, since the case for guns is based on an even more radical misreading of data to mislead Americans into the false belief that guns in the house protect its dwellers.

The smartphone has challenged many of the gun culture’s most cherished illusions. Over Memorial Day weekend, a white Mississippi campsite manager drew a gun on a black couple who failed to properly register before picnicking with their dog. That encounter might once have been tallied by a gun-sympathetic social scientist as a “defensive gun use”—proving the need for firearms. In 2019, the couple bravely recorded the incident, exposing a belligerent jerk needlessly escalating an everyday misunderstanding.

As the political tide turns, the pro-gun cause turns to ever more aggressively anti-majoritarian methods. In 2018, the state of Oregon voted massively blue. It elected a Democratic governor, by a margin of more than six points of the vote. It returned a House with a Democratic supermajority of 38 to 22, and a Senate with a Democratic supermajority of 18 to 12. This spring, the lower house approved a cautious array of new gun-safety measures. The law required gun owners to store their guns safely and imposed liability on them if their guns were used in a crime; outlawed untraceable firearms; required hospitals to provide firearms-injury data to state authorities; and allowed gun retailers to voluntarily limit sales to customers over age 21. It did not restrict ownership of any weapon or weapon component. Unable to defeat the bill, Oregon Republicans walked out of the legislature, denying a quorum, until Democrats agreed to withdraw it. (Republicans also forced the withdrawal of a law ending nonmedical exemptions for vaccination.)

Such methods may score short-term victories. They represent a longer-term concession: Our cause is that of an extremist fringe. Meanwhile, groups such as Shannon Watts’s Moms Demand Action are winning actual election victories for women who have lost loved ones to gun violence.

On the morning after yet another terrible, preventable crime, the world looks bleak. For those in mourning, that bleakness will never end. Yet over the horizon, hope is glimmering. Those who have imposed this nightmare on the country are weakening. Those who reject the cult of the gun are rising. Tomorrow will be better.