In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida—like the earlier,brutal school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut—Democrats have mobilized victims, families, public relations consultants, and the media to exploit the moment. Their efforts have been partially successful in Florida, although pro-gun voters are increasingly energized in opposition.
The Democrats have tried to use gun control as a wedge issue since the late 1970s. Many have forgotten that the Brady Campaign began as Handgun Control, Inc. Its stated goal, deliberately pushed down the memory hole, was to ban handgun possession by civilians. Like the current vilification campaign against assault weapons, the demon gun of the late ’70s and early ’80s was the “Saturday Night Special,” a term that referred to inexpensive handguns preferred by criminals.
Support for a handgun ban peaked in the high trust, law-and-order oriented 1950s, and has steadily declined since then, although it had a spike briefly after the 1980 assassination of John Lennon. Urban crime had exploded in the decade following the protests, riots, and crime explosion of the 1960s and 1970s, and people, particularly in big cities, were frustrated with the violence and saw little use for handguns.
It Was Never About Hunting
But a pro-gun counterculture emerged as well. In 1984, Bernie Goetz became something of a folk hero after he shot three black youths who tried to mug him on a New York subway. He was the George Zimmerman of his day, and today the basic cultural battle lines remain largely the same.
While supporting gun control, the old Democratic party affirmed its support of the hunter and his lifestyle. John Kerry famously donned hunting gear with the tags still hanging on them in his 2004 presidential run. Bill Clinton frequently would be found hunting, especially at the time of the enactment of the original 1994 assault weapon ban. But the rhetoric of hunting increasingly misses the target. Today 60 percent of gun owners cite personal protection as their chief reason for owning a gun, reflecting the broader breakdown in trust, unity, and safety in the country.
One of the significant changes that has occurred since the earliest gun control efforts is the rise of “shall issue” concealed carry laws. Perhaps it is appropriate that Florida led the way in 1987. Like so many New Yorkers, my family made its way to Florida in the 1980s, fleeing the high crime, high tax, high expense, and highly liberal confines of the Empire State.
Florida was and remains a peculiar place. For a long time, it was the only state in the union in which the majority of residents were born out-of-state. But the internal migrants were self-selecting. For starters, they were willing to move far from home. People from all over the country arrived, and the state became a mélange of transients, newcomers, retirees, and people starting over, each reflecting the various regional cultures from their states of origin. Such churn does not lay the foundation of a high-trust society, but, rather, its antithesis. It was a small government fend-for-yourself culture, which had, perhaps unsurprisingly, higher crime in 1987 than New York.
While a high trust society might see more crime as a justification for more government, including gun control, the self-reliant impulse dominated among a group with little either tying them to their government or to their fellow man.
Overall, the law did not lead to the parade of horribles predicted by critics, such as “shootouts over parking spaces.” While it may have had only a marginal impact on crime, it had a significant impact on the identity and priorities of those who choose to carry. They feel safer and more in control of their lives in a place where they may feel they have little in common with their fellow Florida Man. Perhaps because of the law’s long standing, combined with the rootless modernity of Florida, today more than 1 in 10 Florida adults have a concealed handgun license.
Questions of Trust
The current national debate over gun control has the same dynamics as the original debate in 1987. There is a Republican and Democrat divide, as well as an urban and rural one. What is missing is whether anyone on either side feels they can trust the government. People trust the government to protect them and are willing to give up a portion of their freedom to allow it to do so when the government is made up of people like them, is efficient, and when its laws reflect a cohesive community with a common destiny and common points of reference.
Does anyone in Florida feel that way? Do Americans writ large? The same folks who talk about fraudulent elections, institutionalized racism, and trigger-happy cops, also say only the government’s agents should have guns. The contradictions are obvious. The motive seems to be less about faith in government and more of a desire to control one’s actual and potential enemies.
The focus on assault weapons, like the earlier embrace of hunters, shows a certain acceptance of political reality by the gun banners. They know hunting is a deeply rooted, though declining, tradition in rural areas. And they realize a handgun ban is a non-starter when millions have a deeply personal connection to the handguns they carry on a daily basis for self-protection.
Assault weapons, however, occupy a space more similar to handguns than hunting rifles, culturally speaking. They are the product of a younger, more urban gun culture, who own guns partly for recreation and partly “just in case.” Whereas gun control advocates think of Parkland and Newtown when they think of an AR-15, those who own them think of the stalwart Korean grocers who defended their shops during the L.A. riots. They see events like Ferguson and Baltimore and Hurricane Katrina and see a fragile, potentially violent society on the brink of civil war, where personal firepower may be at a premium.
A Lesson in Public Choice
Gun control support ebbs and flows among the median voter. There is a middle ground of people who do not own guns or, at the very least, are not enthusiasts. And this group is vaguely opposed to concealed weapon permits, assault rifles, and largely ignorant of the “doomsday option” theory that underlies constitutional protection for guns. But do they care even a fraction as much about guns as the gun owners themselves?
The Democrats abandoned gun control after Gore’s loss in 2000 because of the manifest importance of gun rights to gun owners. As Tom Wolfe put it, the original anti-authoritarian and distrustful clan of America, its Scots Irish, tipped the scales:
The 2004 election came down to one state: the state of Ohio. Whoever won that state in the final hours would win the election. Northern Ohio, the big cities of Cleveland, Toledo on the Great Lakes, were solidly for Kerry. But in southern Ohio, from east to west, and in the west was the city of Cincinnati, Ohio went solidly for George Bush. And the reason? That great swath of territory was largely inhabited by the Scots-Irish. And when the Democrats came out in favor of gun control, the Scots-Irish interpreted this as not merely an attack on the proliferation of weaponry in American life but as a denunciation, a besmirching, of their entire way of life, their entire fiction absolute. Guns were that important in their scheme of things.
The gun owning cohort, whether ancient Scots Irish—or displaced New York Irish in my case—that lived through the 1994 assault weapon ban, President Obama’s “bitter clingers” insult, and the nearly genocidal media messages about White Privilege, is extremely wary. They now see guns, the NRA, and gun owners being demonized with the same Manichaean rhetoric once reserved for Jim Crow supporters and al-Qaeda. Does this kind of “us versus them” talk make anyone likely to lay down their arms and put their trust in government run by people who proclaim rather openly that they hate them and their kind?
The likelihood of gun control failing is a prototypical example of public choice theory, which counsels that public policy without majority support can result when there are “concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.” Here the gun owners—whether they own a concealed handgun and have a permit, own an “assault weapon,” or who generally know that any gun control measure makes a total gun ban more likely—simply care a lot more about guns than whatever lukewarm, temporary majority may now be stitched together in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
If the Left makes this the centerpiece of their midterm election strategy, they will energize voters on the gun issue, and that energy will be felt chiefly by those who are personally attached to guns. So I expect them to lose and lose big.
But in the meantime, we will keep our powder dry.
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