After violence pierces U.S. cities and towns, Americans come together. Later politics can drive them apart.
Or not, maybe just this once.
As a grim Monday morning dawned last week in Las Vegas, representatives in Congress issued statements that eschewed gun politics. They stuck to themes of sympathy and shared useful information for constituents, such as where they could give blood. President Donald Trump delivered a somber, unifying address to the nation.
Outside Nevada, gun control advocates urged a more political approach, at the risk of appearing opportunistic.
Last Monday morning, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., jumped on Twitter to say, “To my colleagues: your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers. None of this ends unless we do something to stop it.”
Murphy also sent out a fund-raising email that directed the indignant to donate — with proceeds going to anti-gun groups and his 2018 re-election campaign. The link later excluded his campaign, but the whiff of opportunism clung to his effort.
On Wednesday all four Nevada Democrats in Congress — Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto and Reps. Dina Titus, Ruben Kihuen and Jacky Rosen — announced their support of legislation to ban bump stocks, devices designed to increase the firepower of semi-automatic rifles. Authorities found bump stocks on a dozen of the firearms found in shooter Stephen Paddock’s Mandalay Bay hotel suite.
UNLV political science professor John Tuman noted that there’s deep widespread support “in the political culture of Nevada,” but also believes the Democrats were responding to constituents who believe Washington should tighten gun laws.
Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei have reason to urge the Trump administration to ban bump stocks administratively. Such an action would spare them from having to cast a vote likely to alienate some of their voters — and to ban a device that the vast majority of gun owners probably never heard of until last week.
Many gun rights advocates believe that lawmakers like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sponsor of the Senate bump stock ban, won’t stop with bump stocks. She is after all the author behind the 1994 federal assault weapons ban that lasted for 10 years.
It’s hard to argue against the slippery slope argument. When the NRA shocked Washington with its support for regulations to restrict bump stocks, Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto said, “The NRA’s announcement is a welcome opening for conversation on additional measures we can take to protect the lives of Americans.”
Do gun laws work?
On the other side, there’s a general suspicion that broad gun laws don’t work. The Washington Post ran a much-discussed opinion piece last week in which statistician Leah Libresco disclosed how three months of team research on gun deaths crushed her belief that sweeping gun laws work.
“By the time we published our project, I didn’t believe in many of the interventions I’d heard politicians tout,” Libresco wrote. “I was still anti-gun, at least from the point of view of most gun owners, and I don’t want a gun in my home, as I think the risk outweighs the benefits. But I can’t endorse policies whose only selling point is that gun owners hate them.”
That is the hurdle supporters of gun restrictions will have to overcome: Would their prescription have stopped shooter Stephen Paddock, who bought his arsenal legally after passing a background check?
Keep in mind the number of guns that already exist in the United States — in 2013 the Pew Foundation cites estimates between 270 million and 320 million.
Asked on Fox News if he would support a measure to ban bump stocks, a frustrated Heller described the Sunday night shooting and responded, “You show me that law that would stop that, not only would I support it, I would be an advocate for that law.”