Washington - Sometimes, dramatic shifts in American politics go unnoticed. They are buried under other news or dismissed because they represent such a sharp break from long-standing assumptions and expectations.
So please open your mind to this: Taken together, the events of 2016 and the results of the 2018 election will be remembered as the beginning of the end of the gun lobby's power.
Supporters of reasonable gun regulation have been so cowed by National Rifle Association propaganda over the last quarter century that we are reluctant even to imagine such a thing. No matter how many innocents are slaughtered, no matter how many Americans organize, demonstrate and protest, we assume the NRA and its allies will eventually overpower us.
And let's concede up front that the vast overrepresentation of rural states in the U.S. Senate tilts the system, undemocratically, toward those who claim that government is powerless to take meaningful steps against mass killings. The fact that Wyoming and Idaho have as many Senate votes as New York and California underscores the challenges that remain.
Nonetheless, we are in a new and better world on guns, organizationally and electorally. This conclusion is compelled not by wishful thinking but by the evidence.
Investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election have the NRA in its sights. As Rosalind Helderman, Tom Hamburger and Michelle Ye Hee Lee reported in the Washington Post, the guilty plea entered into last week by Maria Butina, a Russian agent who courted NRA leaders, "has intensified questions about what the gun rights group knew of the Russian effort to shape U.S. policy, and whether it faces ongoing legal scrutiny."
One of the things we need to know more about: Why “NRA spending on the 2016 elections surged in every category.” The bulk of this money went to supporting Donald Trump. As the Post journalists wrote, the key question — which is being posed openly by Democrats but is no doubt of interest to prosecutors — is “whether the group’s spending spike was tied to its Russian connections.”
The article also noted that in 2018, the NRA's political spending "plummeted." While the organization has denied wrongdoing in 2016, it is clearly in disarray and some suburban Republican candidates this year were fearful of cashing its checks.
But the NRA's troubles are only part of the story. What may matter more is that 2018's voters changed the political calculus on the gun issue.
Consider the history. Democratic terror over the NRA's power took hold in earnest after the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans picked up 54 seats and gained control of the House for the first time since the early 1950s. Many factors explained the outcome, including a backlash against then-President Bill Clinton, opposition to tax increases passed to balance the budget, and the failure of the administration's health plan.
But for many Democrats, it was politically convenient to focus the blame for their heavy losses in rural and southern districts on gun-control legislation enacted not long before the election. The gun lobby's claims to influence were enhanced when it helped George W. Bush move heavily rural states his way six years later.
In 2018, by contrast, the battleground districts where Democrats defeated Republicans were largely in suburbs where most voters are tired of politicians who capitulate to gun extremists. Democrats campaigned enthusiastically for sane regulation, and it helped them win.
Voters who told exit pollsters that they cast ballots on the basis of gun policy voted for Democrats overwhelmingly, 70 percent to 29 percent. The exit poll (conducted by Edison Research and reported by CNN) offered other evidence of which side was most energized by the issue. For example, among voters in households without guns, Democrats in House races prevailed by 72 percent to 26 percent. Those in households with guns voted Republican, but by a narrower margin, 61 percent to 36 percent.
There is much credit to go around for shifting the political terrain on guns. The activist students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School certainly deserve their share, as do established gun-control groups that stepped up their own engagement while also backing the Florida organizers and helping to link them to other young people around the country.
The 2018 elections should be as empowering for those who want to end our nation's shameful immobility in confronting mass shootings as the 1994 upheaval was for the gun lobby. There is much more work to do, but those who undertake it can know that they now have the wind at their backs.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.