Will Gun Control Always Be a Stale Debate?

Hours after the tragic shooting deaths in Aurora, Colorado advocates on both sides of the gun control debate began reciting the same talking points they've reiterated for years.

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Hours after the tragic shooting deaths in Aurora, Colorado advocates on both sides of the gun control debate began reciting the same talking points they've reiterated for years. Is the U.S gun control debate forever destined to be a stale, frozen-in-time conversation?

On Friday morning, conservatives, such as Rep. Louie Gohmert, advanced the old idea that if somebody else in the Colorado theater only had a gun, the shooter could've been stopped. Others vilified liberals for exploiting the deaths as an excuse to push for assault weapon bans or tighter background checks. "You can always expect our corrupt media to feast on the corpses of the victims in order to push their left-wing political agenda," wrote Breitbart's John Nolte. And then there was the familiar thread that in situations like these, liberals will always try to blame the violence on everything else (society, gun laws, the Tea Party) before blaming the shooter himself. "The time to make the doer of the deed responsible is here," wrote The American Spector's Jeffrey Lord.

Meanwhile, progressives flinched into action, reiterating their pleas for stricter gun laws at the federal level. "I often wonder what it will take for Americans to absolutely reject the groups like the NRA, all their ideas, and anyone who supports their morbid, necrophiliac love of an element of the constitution that is ... insanely stupid given modern weaponry," wrote The Huffington Post's Matthew Chapman. In a blunt statement, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “It’s just gotta stop," while CNN's Piers Morgan took to an even blunter format. "Lunatics like this will always try and get guns. It should be 100,000 times harder than it is for them to do so," he tweeted. "America has got to do something about its gun laws. Now is the time."

If you haven't heard any of these arguments before you've been living under a rock. That's not to dismiss any of the issues raised, but it's evidence that the debate isn't going anywhere. And it's likely to stay that way unless the politics of gun control changes in America. So will this ever happen? It depends on who you ask.

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza thinks the needle is frozen and that liberals hoping for a breakthrough moment in the politics of gun control are dreaming. "If history is any guide ... the Aurora shootings will do little to change public sentiment regarding gun control, which has been moving away from putting more laws on the books for some time," he writes. He points to the following Gallup poll showing steadily-declining enthusiasm for greater gun control since 1990.

It's a persuasive point, but it's not held by everyone. "I disagree," tweets GQ and Atlantic contributor Marc Ambinder. "Given the context of the election & magnitude of the shootings, I think #Aurora will restart the gun control debate. I would not be surprised to see (not today but soon) the WH take some ginger policy steps. Obama coalition is more open to gun control."

Ambinder, who is well-sourced in Washington politics, argues that the only thing standing in gun control advocates' way is conventional wisdom. "Political death associated w/ talking about gun control is a myth perpetuate by frustrated ... Gore advisers after ‘00 and pushed by NRA," he tweets. "The @NRA is very powerful but not invincible." The "myth" Ambinder speaks of has been widely debated in progressive circles and goes something like this: In 2000, Al Gore lost the presidential race on the backs of pro-gun voters in swing states, most importantly, Gore's home state of Tennessee. It was an idea perpetuated by the NRA, whose executive Wayne LaPierre famously proclaimed as such at a 2002 convention to assembled members, "You are why Al Gore isn't in the White House." Was that true?

Probably no one has done more to combat this theory than The American Prospect's contributing editor Paul Waldman, who wrote a detailed polemic about the NRA's impact last February. He said it was ridiculous to conclude that gun control hurt Gore because he lost states that have lots of pro-gun voters. "This argument presumes that there were no areas in which Gore’s position on guns helped him win a state he might otherwise have lost. But Gore won swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa largely on his strength among urban and suburban voters, who are more likely to support restrictions on guns," he wrote. The one state that has been cited by journalists, Democrats, Republicans and the NRA above all others is Tennessee, where Gore lost. But Waldman argues that the NRA difference can't be so easily-attributed to Gore's loss there. "Tennessee was in the midst of a larger trend in the South, where the state was growing more and more Republican over time. When Al Gore arrived in Congress in 1983, the House delegation he joined had six Democrats and three Republicans; after the 2000 election the margin was 5-4 in favor of Republicans, and today it is 7-2 Republican," he wrote. "The 2000 presidential election was not an anomaly, but rather part of a steady trend away from the Democratic party in Tennessee."

If you believe Ambinder and Waldman, you're likely to be optimistic about the chances for a genuine sea change to occur on the issue of gun control. However, if the likes of Cillizza are right, get ready for another decade of stale, unchanging gun control debates, regardless of the tragedy at hand.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.