Talk about power: The gun lobby barely had to say a word before the media sent advocates of saner gun regulation shuffling off in defeat.
In a political version of Stockholm syndrome, even those who claim to disagree with the National Rifle Association's absolutist permissiveness on firearms lulled themselves into accepting the status quo by reciting a script of gutless resignation dictated by the merchants of death.
It's a script built on half-truths and myths. For example, polls showing declining support for gun control in the abstract were widely cited, while polls showing broad backing for carefully tailored laws were largely ignored.
A study last year in the Journal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care analyzed gun death statistics for 2003 from the World Health Organization Mortality Database. It found that 80 percent of all firearms deaths in 23 industrialized countries occurred in the United States. For women, the figure rose to 86 percent; for children 14 and under, to 87 percent. Can anyone seriously claim that our comparatively lax gun laws had nothing to do with these blood-drenched data?
Some of the evasions are couched in compassion. We are told that the real answer to mass slaughter lies not in better gun statutes but in more attentiveness to those afflicted with psychological problems.
Yes, we need better treatment for the mentally distressed. But while we build a better system of care for mental illness -- and, by the way, nobody talks concretely about how to create and pay for such a system -- isn't the more direct solution to ban automatic weapons and oversized magazines so that when someone does go off the rails, it won't be possible for him to shoot off close to 100 rounds in 100 seconds? And why shouldn't we make it harder for such a person to buy the instruments of slaughter online?
Regulations, it is said, just won't work. Bad people will get guns somehow. But if that were true, why did the assault weapons ban work? If regulation is futile, why do we bother to regulate safety in so many other ways? We manage to prevent needless deaths through rules on refrigerators, automobiles and children's toys, yet politics blocks us from keeping up to date on the regulation of firearms, whose very purpose is to kill.
We're told that no laws will end all human tragedies. That's true. And if the standard for a useful law is that it must put an end to all tragedies and solve all problems, there is no point in passing any laws at all.
Those of us who believe in sensible steps to regulate weapons are supposed to bow before this catalog of despair and shut up. Most liberal politicians are doing just that. It does not seem to occur to them that the general idea of gun control is bound to recede in the polls when so many advocates of popular regulations give up on making their case. Bad arguments prevail when they go unanswered. That, by the way, is why it's not enough for advocates of a sensible course on guns to think their job is over if they write one impassioned column or make one strong statement after a mass killing -- and then move on to the latest campaign flap.
The polls still show considerable support for practical measures to curb gun violence. For example: a 2011 New York Times/CBS News poll (.pdf) found that 63 percent of Americans favor a ban on high-capacity magazines; just as many supported an assault weapons ban. The same year, a Washington Post/ABC News poll (.pdf) found that 83 percent supported financing a system in which people treated for mental illness would be reported to a federal gun registry database to prevent them from buying guns; 71 percent favored this for those treated for drug abuse.
Such numbers should give heart to those who seek solutions to gun violence. Yet so many progressive donors have given up on financing the cause of gun safety. And although President Obama took an important step forward in a New Orleans speech Wednesday night, so many progressive politicians sit back and assume that the gun lobby will win again.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).