Can Democrats end the decades-long impasse on gun control?

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The recent mass shootings in Boulder, Colo., and the Atlanta area that led to a total of 18 deaths have reignited the debate over gun control in Washington.

President Biden on Tuesday called for Congress to pass an assault weapons ban, a ban on high-capacity magazines and the elimination of loopholes in background checks for gun purchases. "This is not and should not be a partisan issue. This is an American issue. It will save lives. American lives. And we have to act," he said. Biden’s comments, along with similar statements from other prominent Democrats, carried a familiar message to the one pushed by gun control advocates after each mass shooting.

The United States has by far the highest rate of gun deaths of any developed nation — 41,000 in 2020 alone — but Congress hasn’t passed any meaningful restrictions on gun ownership in more than 25 years. As popular as many gun control proposals are with the public, attempts to enact them have consistently stalled amid fervent political opposition from Republicans and a lack of unified support among Democrats.

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed two bills that would expand background check requirements for gun sales, a provision that is supported by 92 percent of voters. The bills seem to have slim odds of advancing through the Senate, however. Republicans appear unified in opposition, meaning all 50 Democrats would have to vote to eliminate or amend the filibuster for the measures to pass. Moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has sponsored background check bills in the past, has said he opposes these specific bills because they go further than he would like.

Why there’s debate

Many political observers say the latest mass shootings are destined to spark the same cycle that has been repeated time and again in recent years in which impassioned pleas for gun control run up against political roadblocks and eventually fade without any changes happening. The fact that even modest reforms like background checks can’t advance shows that more ambitious plans like an assault weapons ban have next to zero chance, they argue. Others say it’s more likely that gun rights will actually be expanded in the near future by Republican state legislatures or the conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

Despite all these factors, some gun control supporters see reasons for optimism. They argue that advocacy groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and March for Our Lives have gained considerable power in recent years at the same time as the National Rifle Association, the country’s largest gun rights group, has faced allegations of corruption and a bankruptcy filing. Some experts say it’s possible that enough Republicans could be persuaded to support limited restrictions like a slimmed-down background check bill or “red flag” laws that bar certain people from buying a gun in specific circumstances.

Others see opportunity for lawmakers to reduce the number of gun deaths without getting stuck in the same intractable cycle that has gone on for decades. Biden could make some changes to enforcement policies through executive action, for example. Another group believes that Democrats might find more bipartisan support for laws that focus on promoting gun safety and preventing the most common forms of gun deaths, such as suicides and handgun homicides, rather than mass shootings.

What’s next

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed to bring the two House background check bills to the floor for consideration, but a Republican filibuster could prevent the proposals from advancing to a final up-or-down vote.


There’s room for a less oppositional approach to reducing gun deaths

“Frankly, liberal opposition to guns has often been ineffective, and sometimes counterproductive. … The left sometimes focuses on ‘gun control,’ which scares off gun owners and leads to more gun sales. A better framing is ‘gun safety’ or ‘reducing gun violence,’ and using auto safety as a model — constant efforts to make the products safer and to limit access by people who are most likely to misuse them.” — Nicholas Kristof, New York Times

Democrats’ proposals wouldn’t make a significant impact even if they did pass

“Progressives like to present themselves as data-driven pragmatists, but they are fixated on scary-looking black rifles that are as a matter of easily verifiable fact rarely used in homicides. … The stereotypical NRA member of the left-wing imagination (middle-aged, white, suburban or rural, conservative, bigoted, egg-bound) isn’t a public danger — he’s a cultural enemy, one who presses all sorts of aesthetic and social-status buttons.” — Kevin D. Williamson, National Review

The cycle of failure on gun control shows no sign of ending

“We mourn, we are furious, we wonder about motivations and then it happens again. And again. And again. We live through horror after horror and little changes.” — Helaine Olen, Washington Post

The background check bill may be that thing breaks the filibuster

“It will escape no one’s notice that the perpetually frustrated co-sponsor of the gun-show-loophole bill, Joe Manchin, is also one of two Senate Democrats publicly defending the filibuster. Maybe the new outrage will help move him off the dime.” — Ed Kilgore, New York

Democrats know that they have no chance of advancing gun control

“Mr. Schumer surely knows the bills have no chance to get 60 votes in the Senate. But holding the votes will please progressives, and if there’s new gun violence Democrats might benefit politically.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Democrats have shown they’ll use whatever means possible to force through their agenda

“As we've seen with the COVID-19 emergency, Democrats are not going to waste an opportunity to strip away rights they find inconvenient.” — Nolan Finley, Detroit News

The Supreme Court is likely to reject any substantial reforms

“Former President Donald Trump campaigned as a staunch defender of Second Amendment rights, and it would not be surprising, to say the least, if the three justices he appointed to the high court share that view to some extent.” — Editorial, Orange County Register

The NRA’s troubles create room to change the political calculus

“There are some things that are different that may give reform advocates some reason for optimism. The NRA, which has opposed reforms in the past, is in a weakened state, mired in bankruptcy, lawsuits, and investigations.” — Sean Collins, Vox

The political momentum is shifting in favor of gun control

“Covering this closely, I see the public and the media really has this notion that it’s hopeless, it’s going nowhere. Where I’ve been observing the opposite. It’s been bubbling up and really that political playing field has completely shifted.” — “Columbine” and “Parkland” author Dave Cullen to CNN

Democrats aren’t committed enough to gun reform to get it done

“Absent [a] change in heart, all gun legislation will be doomed — not just background checks but the rest of the proposals for Congress that President Biden ran on, including a new assault weapons ban, a ban on online gun and parts sales, and the repeal of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shields gun manufacturers from lawsuits over the use of their guns in criminal activity.” — Osita Nwanevu, New Republic

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