The Gun Control Conversation Is Dictated by the News Cycle, And That Needs to Change

When the appetite for reform is predicated by the headlines, it's impossible to move forward.
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Publish date:
May 23, 2016
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media, politics, guns, gun control, HIllary Clinton, Donald Trump

Secretary Clinton and Donald Trump are going at it hammer and tongs on gun control — especially in the wake of the National Rifle Association's endorsement of everyone's favorite tangerine terror. Trump claims that Secretary Clinton wants to take everyone's guns away, while Secretary Clinton is quite reasonably suggesting that we do things like take assault weapons off the streets. Trump, meanwhile, is taking a familiar hardline individual liberties interpretation of the Second Amendment.

As the two candidates fight it out, gun control is once again in the national consciousness — but only sort of.

The United States has an extremely troubling and conflicted relationship with guns, struggling to reconcile various aspects of gun culture, violence, historical precedent, and political rhetoric. In the last few years, though, two trends have emerged: An apparent uptick in mass shootings, and a higher public profile for police shootings.

Guns should be on everyone's minds, but instead, gun control is a topic that waxes and wanes in the public consciousness.

Conversations about gun control appear to be heavily dependent on incidents of rampage killing. In the wake of high profile and terrible events of gun violence, suddenly it's the topic du jour, with every media outlet taking on the subject and every politician making bold policy speeches. From Fox News insisting that gun rights should be protected at all costs to President Obama making frustrated and heartbroken speeches in the White House press room, everyone begins to take on gun control as a serious subject.

Until a week later, when the news has faded away and everyone has moved on to the next thing in the cycle. For the families, friends, and communities left behind by rampage violence, the wound never closes — and must be exacerbated by the sense that the issue only appears topical when it's trending in the news.

San Bernardino. Colorado Springs. Aurora. Newtown. Tucson. Littleton. Roseberg. Charleston. Isla Vista. Washington, DC. Santa Monica. Oak Creek. Oakland. Seal Beach. Manchester. Fort Hood. Binghamton. Omaha. Dekalb. Virginia Tech. Salt Lake City. Nickel Pines. Goleta.

Some of the most high-profile acts of rampage violence in the United States from the last decade — and these leave out scores of other mass killings and mass shootings. Far from being safer for being a nation of guns, the United States is much more dangerous. Politicians are right to be taking the subject on, but it's telling that public and political interest appears to hinge on tragedy, rather than policy.

One reason the NRA and other gun lobby organizations have been able to successfully maintain a stranglehold on Congress is the simple fact that they work 24/7 on a single cause: guns, guns, guns. They lean heavily on members of Congress and other politicians to achieve their goals while also advertising to the public, warning their members that their gun rights are about to be taken away for good. Like the anti-abortion machine, they never actually stop, keeping up continuous high pressure that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to enact meaningful change.

That would be because people on the other side of the equation cannot maintain that level of pressure. While there are organizations that do work full time on promoting better gun control and an end to gun violence, they don't enjoy the huge social supports that the NRA does — because the left loses interest and moves on when guns aren't in the news, leaving these organizations relying on a small core of funding and supporters to accomplish their goals. Gun industry groups, on the other hand, have a tightly coordinated and very loyal base that doesn't waver on the basis of what's trending in the news.

Gun control is a critical issue, and people have been absolutely right to call for reforms to the way guns are handled in the United States. It's also a challenging issue, because American gun culture is quite distinctive, and any call for policy shift runs up against the lobbying efforts of people and organizations with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. When those calls only come up sporadically and politicians only enjoy occasional support for pushing reforms, it's difficult to follow through, and it's also easy to make promises that people have no intention of keeping.

To change the gun paradigm in the United States, we must move beyond the news cycle. This is extremely difficult for some to grasp in a climate where the news is a firehose that's very hard to keep up with, and where there are so many policy issues that it can feel impossible to pick just one. This isn't about compromising to focus on a specific issue, though, but rather about finding the focus to carry policy issues all the way through to their completion.

The United States managed it incredibly swiftly with the PATRIOT Act when it responded to the terrorist attacks of 2001, setting a dangerous and horrific national security precedent that has heavily contributed to the last 15 years of interference with civil liberties.

Yet it hasn't managed to do the same thing with gun control, despite call after call to address the country's tremendous gun problem.

Lack of will, or something more complicated? The September 11 attacks proved to be a powerful galvanizing incident, with the public rallying to demand that something be done, and something was done, right away.

Gun control advocates keep hoping that the next round of rampage violence will act in a similar way, shocking Congress into doing something, but instead, rampage violence is followed by a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

If we want better gun control in the United States, changing who can access guns and what kinds of guns they are allowed to have, then we need to be committed to it for the long haul. Politics is often deeply boring and frustrating, involving a lot of waiting and not much else, and that's one reason the gun control issue has been left hanging for so long — because when people get bored, they move on. A populace concerned about gun control must be willing to push for it regardless of what's on the news, to work with gun control advocacy groups to insist on better policy, and to refuse to let up until it's over.

Gun control has always been nominally a part of many candidates' platforms, and as we're seeing this year, it comes up in political debate. Which is a good thing, but that debate needs to come with real stakes, and real teeth.