After a GOP-led filibuster last year blocked Senate passage of a universal background check for gun purchases, no one expects Washington to "tighten up the system" any time soon. Like other issues rooted in cultural affinities, gun control unites Republicans by ideology but divides Democrats by geography. So long as red-state Democratic House and Senate members resist gun control, and Republicans from blue and swing states don't feel irresistible pressure to support it, Congress is unlikely to approve major legislation restricting access to firearms.
But that's no reason to stop formulating an updated national agenda to confront gun violence. In presidential politics, gun-control advocates face a more competitive landscape than in Congress. Measures to restrict access generally draw strong support within the growing constituencies (particularly minorities and college-educated white women) and the states that have provided Democrats the edge in most presidential elections since 1992. Advancing new initiatives to reduce gun violence could strengthen the Democrats' hold on that winning coalition in places like the suburbs of Denver or Philadelphia — and pressure the GOP nominee to respond.
Any reformulated agenda would reflect an important shift: The focus among gun-control advocates is evolving from hardware to people. Although a ban on assault weapons still carries emotional power, more voices in the gun-control camp consider it too easy to circumvent with cosmetic adjustments. And, as Bennett notes, while a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines might have more impact, so many of them are already in circulation, "it's incredibly easy for people to get their hands on them."
Thinking about gun violence instead is tilting toward working harder to deny weapons to people likely to abuse them. That agenda's centerpiece is the universal background-check legislation that would close the current loophole exempting gun-show and Internet sales from such requirements. That idea still draws overwhelming public support in polls.
The frontier of new thinking focuses on the nexus between mental health and gun violence. President Obama's post-Newtown review of gun laws actually made important progress on two fronts: The administration issued regulations toughening requirements on health insurers to fund mental-health services, and it strengthened the federal database used to screen gun buyers under the "Brady bill" by clarifying federal privacy rules that discouraged some states from sharing mental-health records with the system.
The Brady law blocks gun purchases for people who have either been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, adjudicated as mentally ill, or who fit a few other categories, most notably a conviction for domestic violence. Sarah Bianchi, who led the administration's review as Vice President Joe Biden's domestic policy adviser, says the biggest question for any future gun-control agenda is whether to expand those categories. "This issue "¦ needs a new way of thinking," she says.