Why the gridlock on gun control?

by Michael Tamayo

Last week at the White House, President Barack Obama stood before a group of mothers whose children had died in shootings and renewed his call for reforms to U.S. gun laws. “I haven’t forgotten about those kids” who died at Sandy Hook three months ago, the president said. “Shame on us if we’ve forgotten.”The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting primed an issue normally left out of the national spotlight. The shooting was the second deadliest school shooting in American history, just behind the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. The number of casualties in the Sandy Hook shooting nearly doubled that of the Columbine High School massacre. And unlike those shootings, the victims of Sandy Hook weren’t young adults or teenagers: The children were all first graders.

The outrage following the shooting was visceral. Emotions ran high. The issue was primed and put on the national agenda. Obama promised to put his “full weight” behind gun control reform in the wake of the shooting. Polling in the aftermath of the shooting showed widespread support for gun control reform. These signs are all indicative of a government ready to reform the nation’s gun laws.

Why, then, hasn’t any significant federal legislation made much headway to address this issue?

One reason is message overload on Obama’s part. Between gun control, immigration reform, the minimum wage, same-sex marriage, and the sequester, Obama has thus far been unsuccessful at convincing Congress and the public that gun control should be the most pressing concern facing the nation. Tackling a variety of issues at once is not uncommon — even expected — from presidents trying to frame messages and shape the national agenda. But there has to be a clear prioritization of which issues are most important, and Obama has struggled to make clear to Congress and to the public that gun control is his top priority, managing his messaging on other issues alongside it.

Furthermore, developments in politics are sometimes simply out of the president’s ability to control, causing the president to lose his grasp on news cycles. The gun control debate slowed to a standstill as the sequester loomed in late February. As soon as Obama attempted to revive it, the Supreme Court’s hearings on same-sex marriage cases in late March drowned it out again. Juggling multiple issues simultaneously and being sidetracked with uncontrollable external factors makes it difficult to effect change in gun control. There is only so much the public can process at once, and Obama’s gun control proposals may have been filtered out as nonessential in a political environment where attention is focused on other issues.

Another reason no significant gun control legislation has passed is the hurdles any such legislation faces in Congress. It is difficult for gun control legislation to pass the Republican-led House of Representatives, where Republicans are expected to oppose it. Further complicating the matter is the fact that Democrats are not as homogenous as Republicans are on gun control, making legislation even harder to pass through Congress. Look no further than Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) ham-fisted attempt to insert an assault weapons ban provision in the Senate gun control bill to exemplify this fact. Feinstein found herself at odds with the Senate leadership in mid-March when Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) axed the provision from the bill because he believed it would jeopardize the bill’s passage, aware that several Senate Democrats would have opposed the provision. The National Rifle Association has even given A-level grades to seven Senate Democrats for their support for gun rights while failing many other Senate Democrats, illustrating just how disparate Democratic opinion on gun control is. How exactly does a party pass legislation when its own members cannot build a united front against the opposition?

Passing gun control measures is more than a numbers problem in Congress, however: It’s a political capital problem. Gun control is simply not important enough of an issue for Democrats to be willing to risk losing political capital over it. It is not the social safety net. It is not raising taxes on the wealthy. It is gun control, a hot-button issue that divides the Democratic Party (at least more so than the Republican Party) and that Democrats are usually reluctant to make their top priority in Congress.

“Shame on us if we’ve forgotten” Newtown, Conn., Obama said last week at the White House. But it’s not really the case that Congress or the American people have forgotten Newtown. There is something more complex happening here. The state of federal gun control legislation in Congress today is not one of absentminded inattention but rather one of deliberate inaction. Few Democrats want to gamble away their political capital on legislation they are unlikely to cobble together enough votes for to send to the president’s desk. Meanwhile, at the White House, the state of federal gun control legislation is one of message overload.

Gridlock and message overload disorients the media, and the risk of losing political capital on a gamble freezes lawmakers in their tracks. And while Obama pushes for action and asks if we’ve forgotten about Sandy Hook, the gridlock continues.


photo of President Obama by the White House: http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/8475776331/in/photostream