Trump’s support of comprehensive gun regulations may signal a shift in the public dialogue, writes David Adler.
The NRA’s political muscle, reflected in its stranglehold on gun legislation, is virtually without peer in American politics. But the unlikely convergence of powerful forces—presidential, corporate, consumer activism and an army of frustrated citizens—may over time succeed, against long odds, in stemming the sale of assault weapons and reshaping the nation’s gun safety practices and laws.
Still, the effort to undermine the NRA’s influence should be viewed through a biblical prism. This is David against Goliath.
The Valentine’s Day massacre of school children at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—simply the most recent in a string of mass killings at American schools—may prove to be a watershed event. It has demonstrated anew that school shootings represent a genuine public health crisis. It has melded grass roots politics with consumer activism and a growing corporate conscience. It may even have created a movement with staying power.
President Trump’s enthusiasm for gun measures—prohibiting bump stock sales, requiring gun purchasers to be 21 years old, and increased background checks—represents for him a Nixon-goes-to-China moment. As a popular, pro-NRA president, there is little fear among most NRA members that he would abandon an organization that infused his campaign coffers with huge sums of money. Trump can achieve what his predecessors, eyed with suspicion by the NRA, dreamed of accomplishing.
Corporations—Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart and Kroger’s among them—motivated by moral choices and, perhaps, a few long-term economic and market calculations, have moved swiftly to remove from their shelves assault-style rifles, including the AR-15, the murder weapon of choice in Parkland, and have raised the age limit for buying guns to 21 years old.
Corporate America, rather than Congress, may lead the way in enhancing safety on American streets. Economic boycotts and protest marches are coming. This is all part of an effort to reconfigure what it means in America to be an advocate of “law and order.”
In many ways, the spark plugs behind this national rally have been the student survivors at Stoneman Douglas. The Parkland Kids, whom we should honor as the Parkland Generation, have displayed in the wake of tragedy, tremendous courage, maturity beyond their years, poise, admirable political skills and articulate and persuasive voices. This generation, including current high school and university students, should be aware of the fact that their own goals in reducing gun violence in our nation’s schools, and across America, can best be achieved by their mass participation in electoral politics. They must vote, of course, and they should, for a time, become single-issue voters, much as many members of the NRA have been single-issue voters.
Is the NRA correct in its view that an age limit would violate the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms”? Or, might courts deem such a measure “reasonable” and thus permissible within the confines of the Supreme Court’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), authored by the late Justice Antonin Scalia? Scalia, after all, wrote in Heller that the right “is not unlimited.” Age limits on drinking and driving, for example, have been upheld by courts as “reasonable” measures.
Four federal appellate courts have upheld state laws banning assault weapons. In fact, no court has held that assault weapons are protected by the Second Amendment. Judges have observed that other weapons are available to the public for purposes of self-defense. Assault weapons, they have noted, have been used to overwhelm law enforcement personnel.
We are a long way away from meaningful gun reform legislation, but it sure feels like the public dialogue has shifted.
Adler is president of the Alturas Institute, created to promote the Constitution, civic education and gender equality. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution, presidential power and the Bill of Rights.