"When in God's name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?" asked an impassioned President Joe Biden Tuesday night after a horrific massacre at a Texas elementary school.
This has been the cry of gun controllers for decades, and the argument beneath sounds compelling: The public wants stricter gun control laws, such as a ban on “assault rifles,” but a powerful special interest in Washington spends millions to buy off and intimidate politicians, so they don’t do the right thing.
It’s a gripping story, the people-versus-the-powerful and all, but it’s also a false one.
Biden and the gun control supporters aren’t up against Big Money. They have Big Money on their side, to be honest. Biden and crew are up against millions of people who like their guns, covet their gun rights, and oppose most gun control laws.
The gun control people have Mike Bloomberg on their side, spending all his billions of dollars, while the National Rifle Association is basically dying.
Yes, the NRA was, for many years, one of the most successful and fearsome lobbies in the country. But the NRA’s clout came from its members. A lawmaker wasn’t afraid that the NRA would spend tens of millions of dollars against them — he was afraid of 10,000 of his voters who belonged to the NRA getting a piece of mail explaining how he co-sponsored an anti-gun bill. (The NRA, it seems, spent a large portion of its money satisfying the lavish tastes of its leadership.)
These days, the money is pretty even. Everytown for Gun Safety spent $21 million on the 2020 election, while the NRA spent $29 million. In Texas, where Tuesday’s horrific shooting occurred, Bloomberg’s gun control group spent $8 million last election.
The gun control side often outspends the gun rights side manifold. In Virginia's recent state legislature races, for instance, Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety dominated the NRA on spending.
In a recent ballot initiative in Maine, the gun controllers outspent the gun rights people 7 to 1 and still lost.
We just delude ourselves about the politics here. This Maine background checks ballot measure is instructive - 40 point lead in polling, outspent the other side seven to one, still ended up losing. It’s pretty bleak. pic.twitter.com/EPGEezkXUI— (((David Shor))) (@davidshor) May 25, 2022
Sometimes the gun rights folks outspend the gun control folks and win. Sometimes gun rights folks are outspent and still win. The money doesn’t seem determinative. The difference seems to be that a huge slice of the people like guns and like civil liberties and, even in the name of making school shootings rarer, don’t abide by efforts to take away either. These people are more motivated in their desire to protect gun rights than are the gun control supporters.
What Biden and the other gun controllers are fighting against isn’t some narrow special-interest lobby. What they’re fighting against is a subculture. What they would need to defeat in order to pass the gun laws they want is a mindset and a way of life. That’s why the gun control push often veers, accidentally, into culture war talk.
The thing is that not only is “gun culture” a thing. The whole story here is a story about culture. If you want to get at the root of why so many people are killed by guns, you have to look at culture. We are culturally ill. "There is a deep sickness in this country," Bari Weiss wrote aptly. "It goes beyond our addiction to guns. It’s an anti-social, anti-human disease that has gripped our society and our politics."
But when most gun controllers sit down and write a speech or a column, they are unwilling to talk about culture. Maybe they’re afraid that a cultural shift is harder than passing a law. Maybe they dislike the notion that culture is so determinative. So instead, they come up with a cope: The only reason we’re losing is a powerful, shadowy, deep-pocketed special interest.
That may salve some emotions, but it won’t change anything.