Up ahead: a quick and dirty rundown of U.S. gun policy post-Washington Navy Yard shooting.On the morning of Sept. 16, 2013, Aaron Alexis shot 12 people, injured three and set the nation abuzz as the familiar commentary around the gun control debate rose up once more. Does this
naval yard shooting constitute a focusing event that will facilitate a policy window for gun control advocacy? The answer, unfortunately, is no.
First, there isn’t enough public and political support in terms of both quantity and quality. Second, Congress simply isn’t ready to enact gun control policy. Finally, gun control (background checks) is no longer the preferred solution to gun violence. Since there doesn’t appear to be an open window of opportunity today, in the near future and even in the next three years, I advise gun control advocates against any immediate action beyond the perfunctory anti-gun violence statements in response to this latest shooting. Instead, we should look into developing a long-term campaign that capitalizes on the long period of time we have until the next probable wave of attention on the issue arrives in 2016 — in time for the next presidential election.
First, there isn’t enough support to tip the balance in our favor. A policy window opens at the confluence of three streams: problem, policy and politics. Currently, we only have the problem stream. In fact, in Anthony Downs’ issue-attention cycle, the gun violence problem has already passed the pre-problem stage and has been fluctuating between stages two and four with each new mass shooting. Currently, Americans are in stage three but it won’t be long before public attention for this issue recedes in favor of other issues. If Newtown’s first graders failed to produce new gun control policy, Alexis and a military base would face even slimmer chances at the same task. More importantly, however, the numbers support my assertion about a lack of public support. Published on May 23, a poll from the Pew Research Center shows that public opinion remains sharply divided when it comes to protecting gun rights versus controlling gun ownership. In fact, according to Gallup, Americans have been trending toward parity for the last 30 years.
Yet, 50-50 wouldn’t be so bad if gun control advocates were as intense as opponents were. According to same May report from Pew, however, “41% of people who prioritize gun rights said they wouldn’t vote for a candidate with whom they disagreed on gun policy, even if they agreed with the candidate on most other issues. Only 31% of gun-control supporters said gun policy was a make-or-break voting issue for them.” There isn’t a policy entrepreneur comparable to Wayne LaPierre for our side of the debate. Without a leader, gun-control advocates will remain lethargic, which dooms us. It’s not enough to merely marshal support, we must also motivate our supporters to action so that the true decision makers — Congress — will place gun control higher up on the agenda.
This leads me to my second point: Without public pressure, Congress won’t make room for gun control legislation, thus demonstrating the collapse of the politics stream. The 113th Congress managed to pass only five bills by midsummer — and only after intense partisanship. The Senate already struck down a gun control measure in May. Legislators are wary of returning to this issue when other, arguably more pressing, issues (e.g. defunding Obamacare, stopping another government shutdown) compete for their attention. Prospects for gun control don’t look so bright next year either, as 2014 is a midterm election year. Many members of Congress will be even warier of such controversy then. Furthermore, Obama, who is probably the most visible pro-control actor, has acknowledged Washington’s powerlessness with an uncooperative Congress. Without Obama and Congress, the key decision makers, we really don’t have a politics stream at all. And we don’t have a policy stream either.
Point #3: For a while, gun violence and background checks were the favored coupling to solve the issue. With the naval yard shooting, this is no longer the case as Americans now prefer another coupling: gun violence and improving mental healthcare. According to the Gallup poll published Sept. 20, “Forty-eight percent of Americans blame the mental health system ‘a great deal’ for mass shootings. … Fewer blame easy access to guns now (40%) than two years ago (46%), making the mental health system the perceived top cause of mass shootings.” Alexis greatly undermined the strength of the “universal background checks” coupling because he passed all the requisite background checks in order to obtain his gun despite his mental health issues. Without a clear messaging strategy that champions one dominant coupling, aggregate efforts to curb gun violence become diluted, possibly even fracturing along different camps who support different couplings. When calling for an action from our supporters which ask should we put forth? Support the restriction of gun ownership or the improvement the mental healthcare system?
In light of the lack of confluence among the three streams, there isn’t a policy window to act upon. Public support is too evenly divided and we have yet to see an effective policy entrepreneur. Capitol Hill has too many reasons to not touch gun control for a long time, much less open debate on it. The divergence of couplings force us to re-evaluate our policy stream — or at least wait until further research and competition among the different solutions produce a winner. It’s better to wait and craft a more long-term campaign that will last from now to the 2016 presidential election night. As candidates announce their platforms and priorities, there will be chances to boost the issue of gun control when key decision makers — in this case, the eventual winners of the presidential and congressional races — will be most open to public opinion.