In the wake of yet another mass shooting, a rather familiar public debate is playing out. Liberals are calling for restrictions on access to weapons. President Obama, in one of the better examples of the inherent weaknesses of the presidency, gave a statement that gun laws are needed but he knows full well that Congress will never pass them and there's not a damned thing he can do to about it.
Meanwhile, many of those opposed to gun regulations cited the usual issues. For one, they noted, mass shootings are almost invariably perpetrated by the mentally ill, so we should do a better job caring for or monitoring the mentally ill. But as many others have noted, raising this issue is a dodge. Mental illness is a very serious issue in this country, but no more so than it is in others that have far, far fewer gun-related deaths each year. Besides, even if most shootings are done by the mentally ill, that does not mean that most mentally ill people are prone to violence. We could just as accurately note that mass shootings are almost invariably perpetrated by white men, but singling them out as potential criminals is as morally abhorrent as it is impractical.
But another issue frequently raised is that gun culture runs deep in our nation. America, that is, has a fiercely individualistic culture and access to firearms is a part of that, dating back to the nation's founding and earlier. Gun violence is a deeply complex and intractable issue in the United States that is rooted in region, faith, race, poverty, and family. You can't just change the laws without changing our hearts and minds first.
Let's not assume that an issue is untouchable because it's complex or has deep cultural roots. So does every social issue.
To hear this reminds me of a fascinating and surprisingly revealing recent exchange between Hillary Clinton and activists from the Black Lives Matter movement. Wary of her support for their movement, activists asked Clinton on what issues she had changed in her heart that had brought her around. "I don’t believe you change hearts," Clinton responded. "I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate."
Clinton's response, while perhaps harsh, was basically correct. Actually changing the political culture can take decades, or it may never even happen. It's not even clear how one does it or how we would measure it.
But laws can be changed. We saw this during the Civil Rights Movement, when activists pursued a decade-long strategy to pressure elected officials and challenge existing laws in courts to do things like end segregation in public schools and public transportation and secure voting rights. Yes, civil rights leaders also sought to persuade the public and change the culture, but majorities of whites thought those activists were pushing too fast even at the height of their political influence. Southern white culture did eventually change, but it followed, rather than preceded, the change in the law.
We have seen changes in laws affecting same-sex couples, abortion, poverty, health insurance—all issues with deep and complicated political and cultural histories. Those changes came because groups advocated for them and pressured the judicial, legislative, and executive branches to respond. In some cases, the culture shifted to reflect the legal change. In other cases, the culture never changed, but the law did.
We should also consider the example of Australia, which swiftly passed tight gun controls and a massive gun buyback program in the wake of a 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania. It would be difficult to argue that Australians' individualistic culture changed overnight, but the law did. And firearms deaths have dropped dramatically there.
None of this is to say that changing gun laws would be easy in America. It wouldn't. Unfettered access to firearms has become one of the defining tenets of the party currently controlling the Congress. Unless party control changes or that tenet is strongly challenged within the party, there will be little movement on this issue at the federal level.
But let's not assume that an issue is untouchable because it's complex or has deep cultural roots. So does every social issue. Some have seen legal changes anyway, and some of those changes have done the country a great deal of good.
What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.