It’s too early to say for sure, but it looks like the spectacle of twenty first-graders gunned down by the deranged son of a right-wing survivalist two weeks before Christmas might finally be the thing that gets traction on the first serious effort at limiting gun violence in almost twenty years.
This time, the demographics are working in favor. Gun violence is actually down, as is gun ownership – amazingly, the concentration of firearms is exactly where stereotype would put it: old white people who own a huge number of guns. In fact, by some measure, one percent of the world’s population (located in the United States) own one out of every three guns on the planet. Or put another way, less than a quarter of the US populations owns 2/3 of the guns in the country. And the demo is white, rural, Southern, and older. Cue the 27% Theory of General Crazification.
What’s happening this time is that people are finally looking at some hard truths: the vast majority of gun violence involves handguns and assault rifles. Nobody is going on a killing spree with a Winchester .243 with a padded stock, like the one my dad used as a deer rifle the last ten years of his life. Nobody’s going to slaughter two dozen people with a Browning Sweet Sixteen like mine back in the old country, with its three shells before you have to reload it (ponderously). People are waking up to the fact that nobody, but nobody, has a civilian use case for an AR-15 with a thirty-round magazine firing 5.56mm NATO ball ammo…that doesn’t involve some kind of Red Dawn scenario.
I keep saying it because it’s true: the problem isn’t guns, the problem isn’t people who want guns. The problem is people who want to need guns. And these people, in thrall to their fantasy world, have linked arms with the NRA – a group which well into the 1960s was largely an outdoor sports and even conservation organization – and devoted themselves to ensuring that they will always be able to get any weapon not involving a trailer hitch and clutch it close to their collective bosom in perpetuity.
But the demographics aren’t working. The sorting of Democrats and Republicans regionally and demographically have sapped the NRA’s strength. Despite almost five million members and influence out of proportion to its size, the NRA has no pull with Democrats, who have twice now proven able to win the White House and Senate without a lick of support from them. Add to that the fact that the NRA and its amen corner in the conservative press have spent years beating the drum that “Obama is going to take your guns”, and he still got re-elected – that should demonstrate how much power the NRA no longer has, and how much notice of their opinion the Obama administration is likely to take. The NRA can probably still force the GOP to take a hard line, but that might not be enough any more – and a whole lot of non-Southern, non-rural Republicans are having to swallow hard and explain to their well-to-do white soccer mom voters why twenty dead kids are the price of Leroy Turnipseed being able to rise up against the United Nations invading army of socialism.
The tough thing is going to be sorting out what to do with the three hundred million firearms already in play in America. As I may have mentioned before, the thing about a firearm is that it doesn’t generally go obsolete. For a little over a hundred years, the modern brass cartridge has gone largely unchanged; the biggest shift was away from black powder to modern smokeless ammo around the turn of the century (which is why a .38 Special revolver cartridge is so much bigger than a 9mm despite feeding roughly the same caliber – the longer revolver cartridge had to hold more inefficient black powder and ended up firing a heavier bullet at a lower speed). An old Luger taken from a First World War officer of Imperial Germany is just as capable of shooting modern ammunition in 2012, providing the 9mm isn’t the latest overpressure military-grade ammo and the Luger has been reasonably well cared-for. Hell, there are Old West revolvers still in regular use for cowboy action shooting demonstrations.
Or in other words: we still have a gun lying around for every man, woman, and child in the US, and even if we never made any more, they are still there. And functional. And disproportionately distributed among people who are unlikely to see any reason to ever relinquish them. Which presents its own set of problems.
Ultimately, you’re looking at a lot of half-measures and a lot of time. Clamp down on magazine sizes, the way California still does (although when applied nationally, that presented its own unintended consequence; when you couldn’t get more than 10 bullets in a gun the market began to focus on smaller concealable guns that held 10 or fewer bullets). Longer waiting periods, more extensive background checks, massive liability for gun owners whose firearms are inadequately secured and then used by others. And then wait. For years, maybe decades. Wait for guns to fall out of circulation, wait for gun owners to die off and their children to be uninterested in maintaining the stockpile. And make the NRA and its ilk own the fact of Aurora, of Clackamas, of Sandy Hook – the fact of Chekov’s Law in action. Show the gun in Act One, and it needs must go off by Act Three.