The One Group That Could Make a Difference on Gun Control

The polarization of policing has made it politically difficult for firearm restrictions to pass.

Illustration of white and blue guns.
The Atlantic

About the author: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates was begging for help.

“The police of America are pleading with you,” he told senators in 1989, urging them to adopt a ban on assault weapons. “I do not want any more officers to be spray-gunned to death by street punks armed with high-tech killing machines.”

Gates’s testimony preceded what might be considered the high-water mark of gun-control politics in America. His testimony, which followed the killing of five children in California after a gunman with an AK-47 opened fire on a school playground, is emblematic of the bipartisan tough-on-crime politics of the 1990s. After Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis’s landslide loss to George H. W. Bush in the 1988 election, the Democrats ran Bill Clinton in 1992, whose agenda earned him the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police. Clinton included the ban on assault weapons that Gates had begged for in the large crime bill he signed as president, and also signed the Brady Act, which imposed federal background checks for most gun sales.

After mass shootings like the massacre of elementary-school children in Uvalde, Texas, last month, many people wonder why renewing such firearm restrictions on the federal level now seems impossible. Although many states have passed new restrictions, the possibility of federal legislation, even on the most popular proposals, remains remote.

There’s more than one explanation. Public opinion on gun restrictions is likely less unanimous than it appears in polling, although as the journalist Osita Nwanevu writes, even with that discrepancy, “the American public leans toward support for the commonly discussed middle-of-the-road gun reforms.” The 1994 ban passed before bills in the Senate were filibustered as a matter of course, forcing just about any legislation to garner at least 60 votes. In the current 50-50 Senate, that is extremely unlikely.

But one of the most significant factors preventing gun control on the federal level might be that American police themselves are broadly opposed to restrictions on guns, and they remain one of the only institutions in American life whose influence on conservative voters is significant enough to make any federal gun regulations feasible. Americans trust police, often to a fault, so when they say that new restrictions are unnecessary or won’t work, millions of people believe them. American police, like other institutions, have been affected by the partisan polarization of recent decades, resulting in an already conservative demographic identifying even more strongly with the Republican Party and its opposition to gun control laws. That means their advocacy organizations are less likely to sign onto anything associated with the Democratic Party on the national level.

“In the ’90s, police unions were conservative but still played in both parties. They still endorsed candidates on the Democratic side because they were pro-labor and pro-law-and-order,” Ron DeLord, an attorney and negotiator for police unions, and a former police officer, told me. “The unions are becoming part of the Republican Party now.”

The federal gun control of the 1990s was enabled by a strange confluence of interests. The parties were less polarized by ideology, with some conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans still in office. Police felt they were outgunned on the streets and demanded action. Liberal Black legislators were being urged by their constituents to do something to bring down violent crime. The gun-rights movement, traditionally allied with police, had begun to employ rhetoric that portrayed federal law enforcement as oppressive. Bush famously resigned from the National Rifle Association in 1995 after NRA chief Wayne LaPierre referred to government agents as “jack-booted thugs.” Police organizations were unconvinced by the NRA’s insistence that banning “cop-killer bullets” was unnecessary because they were used in very few crimes. In short, a temporary breach between gun-rights groups and police advocacy organizations helped make gun-control legislation achievable.

“The assault-weapons ban, it really wasn’t supported from the perspective of this is gun control, but rather this is another tool on the war on crime,” Jennifer Carlson, the author of Policing the Second Amendment, told me. “They see gun control in terms of this war that police see themselves fighting in urban streets.”

The rhetoric employed by police advocates in favor of gun control was not what you might describe as progressive, and Gates was no left-wing hero—he ran an LAPD where racism and brutality were casually accepted without consequence. While urging Congress to adopt restrictions on assault weapons, Gates clarified that he was not a “gun-control advocate” and did not “believe in general gun control.” The public repeatedly heard the message that such restrictions were necessary because cops were less well armed than the “street punks” and “superpredators.”

“You actually don’t hear a lot about protecting children, preventing mass shootings. It’s about protecting cops from being outgunned,” Carlson said.

The 1990s however, were an atypical period. Since the founding era, Americans have enjoyed a personal right to bear arms, and those arms have been subject to strict government regulations. Notwithstanding the exact phrasing of the Second Amendment, the provision has never been popularly construed as a right explicitly tied to militia service, nor was it seen at the time of its establishment as banning all regulation of firearms. America’s tradition of firearm ownership is not an invention of the NRA, but the idea that all gun restrictions are unconstitutional would have been entirely foreign to the authors of the Second Amendment.

“The founders didn’t think government should have the power to take away everyone’s guns, but they were perfectly willing to confiscate weapons from anyone deemed untrustworthy—a category so broadly defined that it included a majority of the people,” the UCLA law professor Adam Winkler wrote in Gunfight. Many of those restrictions were overtly racist—a fact used by gun-rights advocates to criticize contemporary gun-control proposals. Yet the existence of those restrictions also proves that the right to bear arms has never been as unlimited as its advocates suggest.

Those restrictions also point to the historical consistency of American law enforcement’s support for gun rights. White men with guns were often needed to put down slave rebellions in the South, to fight Native Americans in the West, and to crush labor uprisings in the North. To disarm the population generally would be to deprive the authorities of potential reinforcements: “good guys with guns.” But only some Americans get to be the “good guys,” whose right to bear arms is sacrosanct, while others become the casualties of “justifiable” homicides by police officers who fear for their lives. A young white man who brings an assault weapon to a protest becomes a poster child for gun rights, while a Black man with a lawful firearm who gets killed by police is just collateral damage. If police shoot an innocent person out of an excess of caution, well, this is America: That person might have had a gun.

These dynamics, in fact, reinforce each other—the easy availability of firearms in the United States serves as justification both for police misconduct and for private gun ownership. When crime is low, it is because Americans are armed. If crime goes up, Americans should arm themselves. If mass shootings occur, it is because there are not enough armed civilians to prevent them. The circular logic begins to sound less connected to an individual right to bear arms than to the interests of the firearm industry. Heads, more guns; tails, more guns.

When the assault-weapon ban expired in 2004, the gun industry began an advertising campaign cultivating a particular consumer identity that now dominates the politics of gun policy. And groups like the NRA worked to repair the breach with law enforcement. “The organization doubled down on ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric and subtly reminded cops that gun control was supported by liberals—and liberals were notoriously soft on crime,” Carlson writes. “They also institutionalized relationships between police and the NRA that could better weather the dicey moments when gun rights appeared to endanger police.”

Most gun deaths—half of which are suicides—and gun crimes involve handguns, but the AR-15’s prominence has as much to do with the identity politics of the weapon as with its association with mass shootings, which have increased markedly since the lapse of the assault-weapons ban. The present politics of guns are partly a consequence of selling firearms not merely as a tool of personal protection, sport, or wildlife maintenance, but as a tool of potential political insurrection against liberal tyranny. The political identity of many right-wing gun enthusiasts is rooted not just in a hypothetical scenario of protecting their home from crime, but in a fantasy of murdering their political opponents.

If you want a firearm for personal protection or recreation, then the most popular proposals for firearm restrictions are not particularly threatening. But if your political identity is constructed around the idea that you need your firearms for an imminent battle against the forces of evil, then any such restriction portends apocalypse.

On Wednesday night, the House passed legislation to “prohibit the sale of semiautomatic rifles to people under the age of 21, ban the sale of magazines that hold more than 15 rounds of ammunition, and establish stricter requirements regulating the storage of guns in homes,” The New York Times reported. In response, Texas Republican Chip Roy declared that “Tyrants disarm the people they intend to oppress.” Raising bureaucratic barriers to the purchase of a sub-category of particularly dangerous firearms by teenagers, in his view, leaves the U.S. a step away from Stalinism.

“This idea that the Second Amendment is an über-right—that it’s a bulwark against tyranny, the last stop between citizens and being under the boot of government—that was an idea that the gun-rights advocates really started to push significantly in the ’90s. That understanding and that interpretation took hold, and a lot of people started to believe it, including people who are members of law enforcement,” Kelly Sampson, the director of justice and senior counsel at the gun-control advocacy organization Brady, told me. “That changed the whole conversation around firearms in general, so that now it’s become this extreme understanding that you cannot have any sort of gun laws whatsoever.”

The combination of the firearm industry’s financial interests and modern right-wing political identity have helped make even the most modest restrictions on firearm sales—such as limiting the legal purchase of guns to those old enough to buy alcohol—politically impossible. Instead, the gun-rights movement has shifted from removing restrictions on guns to imposing restrictions on those who would prefer not to be around them, including barring local governments and private institutions alike from banning firearms in certain areas, passing laws encouraging individuals to settle disputes with lethal violence, and protecting the industry itself from civil liability—rights of property and association forfeited to the right to carry a gun. The political compromise suggested by Daryl Gates in 1989—support for a right to bear arms alongside certain restrictions on that right—is simply no longer compatible with conservative political identity. And though states may pass their own restrictions, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority views such laws through the same prism of right-wing political identity that has made any such restriction a prelude to totalitarian dystopia.

The police, who have traditionally been conservative and strongly supported gun rights, are not exempt from partisan polarization or evolutions in conservative political identity. Certain organizations, such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police, still support some new restrictions on firearms. As recently as 2016, the Fraternal Order of Police, which supported restrictions as part of Clinton’s tough-on-crime agenda in the ’90s but endorsed Trump in 2016, stated that because of “the increased politicization of firearms issues and the lack of any meaningful public safety component in many legislative proposals,” it would “not support any additional ‘gun control’ measures.” Asked by email about the FOP’s current position on the slate of reforms proposed by the Biden administration, National FOP director Jim Pasco said that it hadn’t yet taken positions on any of the current proposals.

“I really do think it’s just the politics of rank-and-file police officers—fundamentally, they don’t support gun control; they really believe that guns are a right, and an armed citizenry is a safer one,” Michael Zoorob, a researcher who has studied the politics of police organizations, told me. “Rank-and-file police officers now are Republicans who support gun rights and who are skeptical of gun control, and that’s pretty much it … A lot of that is just partisan polarization in the last 20 years and sorting, [with] conservative Democrats withering away.” Some law-enforcement officials have even publicly pledged not to enforce firearm restrictions if they are passed.

Democratic backing for law enforcement has done little to erode the association among police officers of liberals with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the accompanying perception that Democrats are their enemies and Republicans are their allies. (The same partisan logic helps fuel dismissals of the movement’s substantive criticisms of police misconduct.) The Democratic president enthusiastically supported the tough-on-crime agenda in the ’90s, and wants to increase federal funding and support for law enforcement, but given the ideological composition of their membership, it’s hard for such organizations to contemplate cooperating with the likes of Joe Biden on even minor restrictions on firearms.

“They’re not going to support any gun reform because their own members won’t let them. Their members are Republicans,” DeLord said. “They’re not going to get out of step with Fox News, which is just the mouthpiece for the Republican Party.”

As it happens, the police in Uvalde appear to have been delayed in stopping the shooter because he was so heavily armed. Officers reportedly stood outside the school for an hour, preventing distraught parents from entering the school to rescue their children rather than taking down the heavily armed gunman who was slaughtering children.

But it’s not the 1990s anymore. Back then, the fear of being overmatched in the street spurred enough support from law enforcement for gun restrictions to pass. The right to bear arms did not cease to exist in the United States. But it was an anomalous moment—and as long as American law enforcement remains so clearly aligned with one political party, such conditions are unlikely to recur.