America Will Never Embrace Gun Control Under Barack Obama - Pacific Standard

America Will Never Embrace Gun Control Under Barack Obama

Why Obama's election also yielded a strange new obsession with gun rights.
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Barack Obama. (Drop of Light/Shutterstock)

Barack Obama. (Drop of Light/Shutterstock)

On October 1st, tragedy struck an American college campus—again. A 26-year-old gunman opened fire on the Umpqua Community College in Oregon, killing 10 and injuring nine before taking his own life as law enforcement authorities closed in. It was the 142nd school shooting since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, left 20 young children dead, according to a count by Everytown for Gun Safety. Not even two weeks after the Oregon shooting, more have taken place: As Obama traveled to Oregon to meet with the families of shooting victims, a Northern Arizona University freshman opened fire on four fraternity brothers, killing one and injuring another. A few hours later, Texas Southern University's Houston campus was placed on lockdown amid reports of an active shooter at a nearby apartment complex. These two incidents brought the count up to 144. Nothing, it seems, will ever change.

Addressing a shocked and grieving nation the evening after the Oregon shooting, President Obama was incensed. "America will wrap everyone who's grieving with our prayers and our love," he fumed, before launching into a passionate takedown of our never-ending gun debate:

We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston. It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.

And what's become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation. Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out: We need more guns, they'll argue. Fewer gun safety laws.

Does anybody really believe that? There are scores of responsible gun owners in this country –they know that's not true. We know because of the polling that says the majority of Americans understand we should be changing these laws — including the majority of responsible, law-abiding gun owners.

There is a gun for roughly every man, woman, and child in America. So how can you, with a straight face, make the argument that more guns will make us safer?

Despite the anger, the palpable exasperation, flowing through his remarks, Obama's call to action has, once again, been met with a depressing rebuke—and not just from politicians. To date, the president has delivered 11 speeches after 11 mass shootings, all to no avail. He called for stricter controls on high-capacity cartridges, and no one listened. He called for better background checks, to prevent those with a history of problematic behavior from stockpiling weapons to kill other human beings, but nobody (or not enough bodies) cared.

For many in Washington, gun control is a dead issue. Basically every measure proposed to help stem the tide of mass shootings in the United States—and there are some decent, potentially viable ideas floating around—has died a quiet death in Congress.

The problem isn't that Obama isn't trying hard enough. It's that it's Obama who's trying.

At least, that's what 20 years of public opinion data on gun control suggests. A January 2015 Pew report showed an unexpected shift in views on gun control post-Newtown: It wasn't until after the massacre that more people favored protecting gun rights than restricting gun ownership, as Talking Points Memo points out. The reason for this shift becomes clear after you dig into the Pew data, broken down by political affiliation: While Democratic views on gun rights and gun control only gradually shifted in favor of the former between 1993 and 2013 (with 65 percent of Democrats favoring control over protecting gun rights), Republican support for gun rights jumped wildly from 48 percent in 2007 to 75 percent in 2013—a spike that coincides with the election of Obama and, in turn, the rightward shift in the GOP.

(Graph: Pew Research Center)

(Graph: Pew Research Center)

Part of this makes sense: Gun-related paranoia has been part of the Obama presidency since he decried "bitter" small-town voters who "cling to guns and religion" in 2008. The GOP took steps to capitalize on the anti-Obama paranoia of the Tea Party, which had gained traction amongst arch-conservatives by branding the first black president as a Kenyan socialist dictator (who, by the way, is also coming for your guns). That paranoia became institutionalized in 2010, when the Tea Party wave swept through Congress during the midterms. The Tea Party's rise to power isn't just a political re-alignment; it also indicates something a bit more poignant about the relationship between gun rights and GOP identity. "It's not just that many Republicans' views have changed since Obama took office," Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall smartly observed, "but that being pro-gun has become an elemental part of what it means to be a Republican."

This ideological opening, a political window that gains momentum every time Obama opens his mouth about guns, comes with hefty business incentives too. Consider that, according to the Washington Post, the gun industry has enjoyed something like a $9 billion boost in revenue as estimated sales in firearms and ammunition exploded after Obama took office.

(Graph: National Shooting Sports Foundation/Washington Post)

(Graph: National Shooting Sports Foundation/Washington Post)

Consider also that the National Rifle Association has spent increasingly large gobs of money lobbying Congress, shelling out $37.6 million since 1998 and $3.3 million in 2014 alone. It helps that contributions for the group spiked in 2008 as a result of the anti-Obama paranoia, which came after a steady downward decline at the beginning of the new millennium.

(Graph: OpenSecrets.org)

(Graph: OpenSecrets.org)

For gun-rights advocates and their associated private sector allies, fear of a black president is even better for business than shootings themselves. We can see that paranoia at play in Oregon, where the sheriff in charge of the police response at Umpqua Community College openly embraced Obama gun-control conspiracy theories on social media. The truth of the matter is that, to many firearm enthusiasts, the 2nd Amendment will never be safe with Obama in the White House.

Obama closed his remarks on the Oregon shooting by addressing a major criticism from the right: that he "politicizes" tragedies after they happen. "Well," he responded, "this is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic." The president's not wrong, but he's missing the sad reality of the modern gun-rights movement in America: Gun-control measures will never catch on as long as Barack Obama's the one doing the politicizing. But with the increasingly inextricable relationship between the GOP and gun rights, it's unclear if any future president, Democrat or Republican, white or black, will be able to roll back the influence of the NRA over American politics. One thing's for sure: It's certainly too late for the grieving families in Oregon.

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