Columns » Jay Barth

A gun shift?

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This week marks a month since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. To note that anniversary, students planned to walk out of schools across the country to remember the deaths of the 17 students at the Parkland, Fla., high school and to call for an end to gun violence. There is no doubt the Parkland shooting and its aftermath have jolted public opinion across the country on the issue of whether government should take action to limit access to guns. The key questions: How permanent is that shift in attitudes and, in a political atmosphere in which the opponents of policy change on guns have such power, can attitudinal change be translated into legislative action?

A CNN survey in late February showed that fully seven in 10 Americans favor stronger gun control laws — the highest level of gun-control support since the early days of the Clinton presidency and an 18 percent jump from when the question was asked after the mass shooting in Las Vegas last year. Public opinion is fickle, but there is considerable evidence that this shift marks a more fixed alteration to mass opinion that previous bursts of enthusiasm for governmental action on guns.

First, young Americans are decidedly more concerned about the role of guns in American life than the oldest Americans and, thus, public opinion shifts bit by bit as "generational replacement" occurs. Second, as a result of the Parkland shooting, gun-control backers have finally found in the survivors a set of faces and voices that are effective and empathetic advocates for change. Third, those survivors and their allies are savvy users of social media. For example, Emma Gonzalez (@Emma4Change), the most distinctive voice from Parkland, attracted more Twitter followers than the NRA Twitter channels within days, and #NeverAgain has emerged as the slogan of the movement. Finally, President Trump's continued support for the NRA and unfettered gun rights inflates support for gun control and has made Trump, consistently unpopular with the American public, a proxy for the issue, a phenomenon we have seen with other policy debates in the months of the Trump presidency.

More telling, the arrival of the #NeverAgain moment has also helped cement new cultural norms regarding the role of guns in American life. Perhaps the most tangible marker of changed norms in a capitalist system is action by businesses deeply conscious of longer-term attitudinal trends. After Parkland, major gun retailers shifted their policy on sales. Dick's Sporting Goods curtailed the sale of assault-style rifles entirely and also is limiting sales of any guns to those 21 and above; Walmart — which stopped selling assault-style guns in 2015 — followed its competitor's lead on new age requirements. Just as important, various businesses ended partnerships with the NRA. Delta, for instance, axed a discount program for NRA members. (In return, Delta was slapped by the Georgia state legislature, which pulled a state fuel tax exemption that would have benefited that state's largest employer to the tune of $40 million per year.)

While significant change appears to have occurred in terms of public opinion and cultural norms regarding the role of guns in American life, there appears to be no will for change at the federal level, where the NRA and related gun-rights groups have shown themselves to have a tremendous ability to play defense. The real combat in recent years has been at the state level, where hundreds of laws have been enacted. At that level, while some gun-control action has occurred in a handful of states, the NRA has succeeded in passing laws that expanded gun rights across the country.

In state politics, the NRA's success during the Obama years was driven by the group's effective messaging to dense grassroots and social media networks of gun enthusiasts that the Obama administration represented a threat to gun ownership. This fear — evidenced by bursts of gun purchases around Obama's elections in those states — provided fertile ground for the NRA to influence subsequent state legislation. The story of this effective NRA work in the states suggests that gun-control activists must develop a similarly dense network of activists to have their own success at the state level. The surprising legislative success last week in Florida, a state where the NRA has dominated for years but is ground zero for the #NeverAgain movement, shows the power of such activism. Since the slaughter of first-graders in Newtown, Conn., Moms Demand Action has attempted to create a grassroots effort to combat the NRA's power at the state level. The crucial issue for turning attitudinal and cultural shifts on guns into legislation is whether efforts such as that are ultimately successful.

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