When President Biden said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was one of the “rational Republicans” who recognize “they can’t continue like this” on the issue of guns – which means doing nothing – the left erupted, casting Biden as hapless Charlie Brown in the old “Peanuts” meme of Lucy yanking away the football.
Even some on the right erupted. Never-Trump conservative Bill Kristol told Biden via Twitter, “I haven’t known Mitch as long as you have, Mr. President. But I used to be on his side of the aisle, so perhaps I see this aspect of things more clearly? In any case: There’s no evidence Mitch ‘recognizes’ things can’t continue like this, or is willing to take any risk for change.”
The key word is “risk,” meaning “political risk,” because that’s how party leaders operate. McConnell’s prime directive is to regain control of the Senate this year, and that could be affected by some remaining Republican primaries – some where he is increasingly becoming an issue, with Trumpist candidates saying they wouldn’t vote to keep him as leader. But he also doesn’t want swing suburban voters (mainly women) to see Republicans as part of the problem.
So, he asked Texas Sen. John Cornyn to seek a bipartisan response to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Then he lowered expectations. In Maysville on Monday, he told James Pilcher of Cincinnati’s WKRC-TV, “What we’re doing is . . . discussing how we might be able to come together to target a problem, which is mental illness and school safety.”
That looked like cold water on the hopes of Democrats (and a few Republicans) for background checks for all gun sales, “red flag” laws to get guns away from people who have indicated a desire to misuse them, or a higher age for gun purchases.
Raising the limit from 18 to 21 fits McConnell’s initial criterion that the response to Uvalde should be “directly related to the problem.” The Uvalde shooter was 18. Congress recently raised the legal age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21, but that was a change that the tobacco industry wanted, to protect itself from greater regulation of electronic cigarettes, so McConnell and Co. were all too happy to go along.
E-cigarette regulation is mainly aimed at protecting children, and perhaps gun regulation should be, too, since guns have now become the main killer of children in this country, which has more guns per person by far than any other.
But any further restriction on gun purchases by anyone deemed an adult prompts knee-jerk reactions from Second Amendment enthusiasts and politicians who fear them. None of the 14 Republican senators who commented on legislation in an open-ended PBS survey about the issue mentioned the age limit, and those who seemed favorable to some change were all over the lot.
Still, the “gun lobby” Biden slammed isn’t the only reason we have been unable to do much about our unique problem with deaths from firearms. Others stem from America’s history and its governing structure.
Our country was forged on a frontier, in which guns were necessary for food and defense – and also used against Native Americans and the British. That helps explain why the Second Amendment says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
In those days, the militia was able-bodied male citizens, there were no automatic weapons or standing army, and the amendment was a compromise that assumed two things, according to the National Constitution Center: The new federal government would have “almost total legal authority over the army and militia,” but should not have any authority at all to disarm the citizenry.”
An earlier and more fundamental compromise in the Constitution is the biggest obstacle to more gun control.
In the Senate, each state has equal representation, giving lightly populated states with largely rural characters and strong gun cultures disproportionate influence. Then there’s the non-constitutional filibuster, requiring 60 of 100 senators to move most measures.
That flouts public opinion, which supports more gun control. The latest Gallup survey found that 52% of U.S. adults said laws governing the gun sales should be stricter, with 35% saying they should be left as they are. A majority or a plurality have favored stricter laws since 2012, the year of the most deadly school shooting, in Newtown, Conn.
But guns are less of a voting issue for those for the general public than for Second Amendment enthusiasts.
So, if gun laws are to be made stricter, it’s not mainly a matter of overcoming “the gun lobby.” It’s also a matter of changing public opinion in states with large rural populations. States like Kentucky. States like Texas. And places like Uvalde.
Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010. NKyTribune is the anchor home for Al Cross’ column.