We owe it to ourselves to bring more than outrage to bear in the aftermath of the slaughter in Newtown. (I would say we owe it to the victims as well, but they're beyond our help now.) We must "politicize," yes; by that, I mean we must strategize. We must do more than simply express urgency, more than demand that the President "act" or "lead" or (ugh) "start a conversation." We must examine the pressure points, the entrenched political calculus that makes gun reform laws so difficult to pass.
In doing so, we must drop the pretense that national outrage automatically translates into policymaking. There's no guarantee that emotional and political reactions will be proportional, and I'm not even sure they should be. We should work from the assumption (supported, sadly, by the recent history of mass shootings) that even this outpouring of grief and rage will be temporary; those of us not utterly committed to gun control will fade away from the fight. The NRA and its allies are in this for the long haul. Gun control advocates, especially those who have only become so over the past few days, are generally not. That imbalance may change, but it's not going to do so during the temporary window in which this massacre may spur legislation. With that in mind, what is the political calculus for gun reform law in the upcoming Congress?
Well, it's not good.
I think we can all agree that the primary bottleneck facing any such proposed law (Dianne Feinstein's promised attempt to reinstate the assault weapons ban, a restriction on certain types of magazines, tougher background checks, etc.) is going to be the House Republicans. So what's the political calculus on this issue for your average House Republican?
Well, what's the defining feature of the Tea Party era of Republican politics? It's not the apocalyptic rhetoric or the quest for ideological purity, although it's certainly related to both. No, it's the unmistakable message the conservative base has sent to Congressional Republicans in both 2010 and 2012: any hint of apostasy, and you're as good as primaried. Orrin Hatch learned quickly and well, and his colleagues have kept or lost their seats according to whether they follow his example. I see no evidence that Richard Mourdock's richly deserved loss has taught the grassroots a lesson in this regard; their overall goal remains shifting the center of political debate as far right as possible. Losing an election or two along the way is collateral damage.
What's more, the GOP took full advantage of their control of the new Congressional maps following their 2010 triumph. They packed as many of their members as possible into safe, ruby-red districts, which is why it's going to be extremely difficult for the Dems to take the House anytime soon. As such, those Congresscritters fear nothing more than the aforementioned primary challenger: in such conservative districts, even total nuts could win not only the nomination, but the general election, especially in a midterm year like 2014 (unless liberals learn from 2010 and show up). Nothing is going to bring such a challenger out of the woodwork faster and more rabidly than gun control.
Why? Well, I'm not going to attempt to diagnose American gun culture; suffice to say that gun rights zealots see black helicopters on the horizon even when no legislation is being proposed. Remember NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre at CPAC, bellowing that the fact that Obama didn't come for your guns in his first term is itself proof that he's just lulling you to sleep so he can take 'em all in his second term? Yeah, that was the persecution complex before Manchin and Scarborough joined the socialist oppressors. However you want to explain it, this is not a mentality that makes room for compromise, and it's one that is ever on the hunt for traitors to the cause.
So imagine yourself, then, an average House Republican. What's going through your head as you examine this issue? You're sickened, horrified, and outraged by the massacre, of course. Benefit of the doubt: you want to do something about it. Maybe you even resent the gun lobby's white-knuckled grip on Congress over this issue.
But then you think: even if I do sign onto gun control, it remains likely that there will be enough Republicans and conservative Democrats to either block the bill in the House or filibuster it dead in the Senate. Again, the Second Amendment Uber Alles crowd has proved to have much more staying power, much stronger messaging, and much more influence with lawmakers than gun control advocates, again because (as cynical as this sounds) the current wave of outrage and urgency will fade. The uncommitted, the non-activists, the apolitical will not stay at the barricades for long. The holidays are upon us; family provides both catharsis and warmth, a private sphere to both vent our frustrations and take comfort in each other. Politicians respond to pressure ("now make me do it," in FDR's words), and the pro-gun control pressure of the moment is just that: of the moment. That window will not remain open long. All the NRA has to do is wait out our outrage, and they have plenty of experience doing just that.
So, hypothetical House Republican, what're you going to do? Are you going to sign a bill that will cause uproar in your home district? That will get you vilified by a conservative press which profits from whipping up exactly this kind of intra-party outrage? That will make you an instant pariah among your Republican colleagues, who will eagerly be RINO-hunting in order to burnish their own conservative credentials? That will certainly get you a primary challenge, and will probably hand you a defeat in that primary? You'll be humiliated, kicked out of Congress, rejected by your home district, persona non grata among your fellow conservatives, and worst of all, unable to snag that cushy think-tank gig every member of Congress hopes is waiting for them when they leave the Hill. You'll be dutifully praised by media figures who fetishize (the appearance of) bipartisanship above all else, but that will be scant comfort; you'll get little help from those whose preference for stronger gun controls is merely rhetorical, not designed to survive as Newtown fades into collective memory.
Will you do this? Of course not. You will vote no. You will do so because you do not get as far as Congress unless your brain works this way. The only way I can see to break that political calculus is if that primary challenge...doesn't happen. If the demand for action reaches the point where a House Republican signing on to gun control does not prompt a conservative backlash and a primary challenge, we will see real reform, and not before then. Maybe we've reached that point, or will soon. I'm not convinced, although I'd never be happier to be wrong.