After a massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in April 1999, journalists thought they saw a groundswell of public support for new regulations on gun ownership.
Frank Bruni, then a reporter for the New York Times, marveled that “the earth has finally moved.” He explained that the National Rifle Association had lost clout. In The Washington Post, Roberto Suro reported that polling had shifted in favor of gun control. Cities were filing lawsuits to hold gun makers responsible for gun deaths.
Some Republicans started to waver in their opposition to regulation. Elizabeth Dole launched her presidential campaign by calling for new restrictions on guns. Republicans who remained opposed to gun control, the New York Times editorialized, were “out of touch with the tides of public concern.” In the Senate, Vice President Al Gore cast a tie-breaking vote for tighter regulations, declaring it “a turning point for our country.”
It wasn’t, as we all know now. The House defeated the Senate legislation a few weeks later. Dole’s campaign went nowhere. In the next presidential election, Gore lost three states the Democrats had carried the previous time, including his home state of Tennessee, and most observers attributed the losses in part to his stance on guns.
Since 1999, federal law on guns has become more permissive. A ban on assault weapons expired in 2004. Polling from both Gallup and CBS suggests that public support for the ban has fallen during this period, too. Support for a more sweeping measure banning all handguns had already been declining for decades by 1999. It has kept falling since then. And those municipal lawsuits? Banned by federal legislation.
Four years ago, another slaughter -- this one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut -- led to another false dawn for anti-gun activists. Once again, legislative action was blocked. A bipartisan measure to expand background checks fell to a filibuster. Another try at the assault-weapons ban got only 40 votes in the Senate.
Even after those defeats, pro-regulation activists and journalists sympathetic to them kept insisting that the tide was turning in their direction. Red-state Democrats like Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina were going to get national financial support for bucking the gun lobby, the New Republic explained. As for the four Senate Democrats who opposed the measure expanding background checks, “that vote will not be without consequences,” warned two analysts at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Landrieu and Hagan lost the next election. So did two of those four Democrats -- but they were replaced by Republicans who sided with the NRA.
Could this time be different? Sure. The movement to regulate guns has never had children as its spokesmen before, and they could prove to be just as powerful as last weekend’s marchers are hoping. If the conventional wisdom that Democrats are going to gain House seats and governorships this year proves true, then it is highly likely that the NRA will have fewer allies in elected office next year simply because of that.
But neither good Republican years nor good Democratic years have changed the fundamental facts of gun politics. The main reason we don’t have more restrictive gun laws on the books is that people who oppose them are more likely to vote on the issue than people who support them.
No law of nature says that fact has to hold true forever. It could change if, for example, enough people who think that assault weapons should be banned but who have typically voted for NRA-backed candidates, or haven’t voted at all, alter their behavior.
I can’t tell whether that is happening from reading and watching the news coverage of this debate. I do know that a lot of supporters of gun regulation, including journalists, are prone to wishful thinking.
Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.