By Bruce Reed, SLATE
Monday, Apr. 23, 2007
Misfire: George H.W. Bush is famous for saying, "Read my lips," but the three words that best captured the way America felt during the first Bush administration were a catch phrase from Dana Carvey—"not gonna happen." The country faced a host of daunting social and economic problems, from rising crime rates to shrinking incomes to deep divisions that burst into view in South Central Los Angeles. But what troubled people most was that no matter how urgent the problem, the answer from Washington was always the same: "not gonna happen."
One Bush later, we find ourselves in the same grim mood today. We face a series of monumental challenges—Iraq, climate change, a vanishing social contract. Such problems would be breathtakingly difficult in any era but seem virtually impossible in this one. Glaciers move faster than our politics, and both are receding.
We have good reason to feel this way. Nothing happened after Hurricane Katrina. Nothing new ever seems to happen in Iraq. Even when something appears to happen, such as last week's decision on abortion, we know better: Nothing's happening when the same issues never go away.
But last week's response to the Virginia Tech tragedy made it official: Not-Gonna-Happen Days are here again. Across the political spectrum, commentators reached the same conclusion. Whatever they think ought to be done to prevent future tragedies, they're unanimous on one point: We're not going to do it.
Even in the ivory towers, where the laws of political gravity don't apply, the dreamers were silent. For its online feature, Think Tank Town, the Washington Post asked a variety of scholars, "How can policies be improved in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings?" All the posts had more or less the same headlines: "The Real Problem Transcends Policy," "Gun Control Doesn't Fit This Crime," "Not Every Tragedy Has a Solution," "Evil Is Always With Us." Another post concluded, "There is not much we can or should do." Another warned not to pass new laws because existing ones might be the culprit. No scholar proposed much of anything on guns.
Granted, most of the scholars in the Post survey come from center-right think tanks and have ideological biases toward doing nothing. But they're not the only ones the Post asked. The center-left think tanks on the Post's list—like Brookings and the Center for American Progress—didn't even bother to show up.
Those of us who work in think tanks are supposed to come up with ideas with little or no chance of passage. Yet in this age of policy ennui, even people who get paid to be hopelessly unrealistic can't suspend disbelief on guns.
I grew up in gun country, and I know what it's like to be strafed by the NRA. I understand why Democrats from red states don't want to risk the next election on an issue of little interest back home. But over the long haul, it is a substantive and political mistake to duck the issue altogether. Guns are a cultural issue but also a crime one—and both parties should have learned over the years that they dodge any crime issue at their peril.
The substantive case for common-sense gun crime and safety measures is clear enough. When Clinton signed the Brady Bill in 1993—after seven years of talk that it would never happen—the NRA said the new law was pointless. In the years since, it has kept handguns out of the hands of tens of thousands of criminals, stalkers, and troubled individuals. If Virginia had properly interpreted the law, it probably would have stopped Cho from buying the guns that wreaked havoc at Virginia Tech.
When the 1994 crime bill banned the manufacture of high-capacity ammunition clips, the NRA once again went ballistic. The bill wasn't as tough as it should have been, because NRA sympathizers in Congress grandfathered existing clips. But the ban kept more clips from flooding the market. The best testimony to its impact is how much gun manufacturers tout that it has lapsed. TopGlock.com offers "new Glock factory magazines that are legal under the repeal of the 1994 Assault Weapons bill." The 15-round clip Cho used with his Glock semiautomatic pistol is on sale for $19.72. TopGlock advertises the clips on a "sunset" page (to mark the law's sunset), which you can access by clicking on the ad for ammunition clips that's just above the tribute to the victims at Virginia Tech.
The political case for not running for cover on guns is equally straightforward. Unlike most politicians, voters are not ideological about crime. They don't care what it takes, they just want it to go down. The Brady Bill and the clip ban passed because the most influential gun owners in America—police officers and sheriffs—were tired of being outgunned by drug lords, madmen, and thugs.
When Democrats ignore the gun issue, they think about the political bullet they're dodging but not about the opportunity they'll miss. In the 1980s, Republicans talked tough on crime and ran ads about Willie Horton but sat on their hands while the crime rate went up. When Bill Clinton promised to try everything to fight crime—with more police officers on the street, and fewer guns—police organizations dropped their support for the GOP and stood behind him instead.
The current political calculus is that guns cost Gore the 2000 election by denying him West Virginia and his home state of Tennessee. This argument might be more convincing if Gore hadn't essentially carried the gun-mad state of Florida. In some states, the gun issue made it more difficult for Gore to bridge the cultural divide but hardly caused it. Four years ago, Gore and Clinton carried those same states with the same position on guns and the memory of the assault-weapons ban much fresher in voters' minds.
Not so long ago, in fact, Republicans were the ones who feared the gun issue. At his first campaign stop en route to the 1996 Democratic convention, Clinton stood with police officers to promise that in his second term, he would expand the Brady Bill to cover people with histories of domestic violence. Republicans in Congress were so afraid guns would hurt them in the suburbs, they sent Clinton the Brady expansion a few weeks later.
In those days, Rudy Giuliani was still in favor of tough gun-crime laws, either because he believed in them as a former prosecutor or because they were wildly popular. Giuliani's politics have changed, but contrary to conventional wisdom, the politics of guns have not. If gun laws were a true third rail, Michael Bloomberg—who wants to be president as much as any candidate in the race—wouldn't be seizing the opening to launch a national crusade around them.
Voters aren't the obstacle to banning high-capacity clips or closing the gun-show loophole; they support those measures by broad margins. The real hurdle is finding leaders who are willing to get tough on crime, no matter where they find it—and who have the standing to prove they know the difference between hunters and criminals. Bill Clinton wasn't a lifelong hunter, like Mitt Romney. He didn't need to be. He was a Bubba.
In recent years, Democrats have suffered a Bubba shortage. But Democratic Bubbas are making a comeback in the South, Midwest, and West. As they gain confidence, they will realize, as Clinton did, that real Bubbas look to cops for approval, not the NRA.
As it happens, one Bubba is in a unique position to lead a hard-headed look at gun laws and gun-crime enforcement: the new senator from Virginia, Jim Webb. Webb is one of the most independent-minded senators in memory and an outspoken man of principle. With an aide who was arrested for bringing a loaded gun into his Senate office, he has an unassailable pro-gun record. Moreover, the state Webb represents is deep in grief over a tragedy that underscores points that both the NRA and gun-control proponents have made—that our gun laws have too many loopholes and that existing laws need to be better enforced. Webb could even lead the effort hand in hand with his Republican colleague, Sen. John Warner, who voted against the assault ban in 1994 but stood with police officers in opposing its repeal in 2004.
A thorough look at gun laws might not lead in predictable ways. But the gun debate desperately needs what Webb and Warner could bring—a preference for independence over ideology, and the moral authority that comes from rejecting the politics of "not gonna happen" in favor of trying to find ways to prevent senseless crimes from happening again.