Take it from Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia who was a prime driving force behind the failed early 2013 attempt to pass strong background checks.
“They’re scared this is the first step,” Manchin said at New York Ideas that year. “When you say universal background check, the first thing that comes in the mind of a gun owner is that means registration, and registration means confiscation. ‘I haven’t broken the laws, why do you want to know everything?’”
This distrust helps to explain one of the central paradoxes of the gun-control debate. How can it be that vast majorities of Americans, including gun owners, favor stricter background checks, and yet there’s not the political will to pass them? One reason is that theoretical support for checks is different than trust the Obama administration to institute them. Every time the president changes a stance or exercises presidential power—for example, issuing an executive order to allow DREAMers and their families to stay after saying he couldn’t—it adds fuel to the worry: Look, he said he couldn’t and wouldn’t do this with executive authority. Why should we believe he won’t do the same with guns?
One thing Obama said Thursday particularly triggered this fear. “We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings,” he said. “Friends of ours, allies of ours—Great Britain, Australia, countries like ours. So we know there are ways to prevent it.”
After a 1996 massacre in Port Arthur, Australia significantly tightened its laws. The legislation “outlawed automatic and semi-automatic rifles, as well as pump-action shotguns. A nationwide gun buyback scheme also saw more than 640,000 weapons turned in to authorities,” NBC explains. (If you have progressive friends on Facebook, you’ve almost certainly seen the viral video of Aussie comedian Jim Jeffries talking about gun control down under.) The mention of Australia is coded language to conservatives, as the writer Charles C.W. Cooke noted:
Politically, this may seem absurd. Obama may personally think confiscating guns is a great idea, but there’s no prospect that he could get such a policy enacted into law—and if he did, the Supreme Court’s recent precedents on the Second Amendment make it unlikely the law would stand. No one needs to guess what policy Obama might actually back in Congress, because he already tried: It was modest. And it failed.
Psychologically, however, supporters of gun control ignore this attitude at their own political risk. In fact, the professional advocates have already taken it into account—as Molly Ball reported in 2013, they’ve adopted language intended to be more value- (and fear-) neutral: “gun violence,” “reducing gun violence,” “gun-violence legislation.” (Not that it’s helped them much.)