The killings on the streets of Kenosha, Wis., and Portland, Ore., by gun-toting, self-appointed ministers of justice bolster one of the main arguments made by gun control advocates: widespread access to guns leads to needless death.
In both cases, confrontations between political opponents quickly escalated, shots were fired, and people died. Further, the Kenosha shooting involved a semi-automatic “assault” rifle, in a state with an open carry law (though the 17-year-old shooter, Kyle Rittenhouse, is one year short of being able to legally open carry in the state).
Yet the shootings have not sparked a fresh dialogue about gun control. We are not spending much time at all debating background checks, assault weapons bans or open carry laws.
Why aren’t we talking about guns? Chiefly, because the presidential candidates aren’t talking about guns. Donald Trump is busy blaming Joe Biden and Democratic mayors for failing to crack down on rioting and looting, while Biden is blaming Trump for fueling divisiveness.
Biden, as the candidate with a long record of supporting gun control, is the one you might expect to emphasize the issue. But he apparently does not see the political gain in doing so.
Biden wants to frame the election as a choice between a uniter and a divider, between an incumbent who is constantly polarizing America, and a challenger who will remind Americans of our common purpose. He can’t easily run as a de-polarizer and stress gun control, because the gun debate inflames our cultural polarization.
It’s hard to fault Biden’s political logic. He wants to win big — not just to win the presidency and Congress for Democrats, but also to encourage any remaining Republicans in the Senate to cooperate with his agenda. He said during a July fundraiser, “If we win as big as we possibly can, there’s going to be a great, great epiphany that’s going to take place, as we Catholics say. … [Republicans are] going to begin to wonder … by just being obstructionist, whether they’re going to lose the rest of that blue-collar vote out there in the nation.” In turn, Biden wants to draw Republicans into his fold, and help Democratic Senate challengers in red states such as Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas. Hammering the gun issue is not the best way to flip those seats.
However, we can’t solely point to Biden for our lack of gun control dialogue in this fraught moment. As a people, we Americans don’t rush to debate the issue after most shootings. We only do it after public mass shootings. A public mass shooting is a form of domestic terrorism, designed to terrorize the public. The media obliges, and the public tunes in. Gun control and gun rights advocates seize the traumatic moment to press their respective cases. Eventually, the media focus shifts elsewhere and the debate subsides, only to resurge after the next public mass shooting.
Since what happened in Kenosha and Portland were limited in scope, we aren’t seeing any public pressure on politicians to turn their attention to gun control. But this is not a new problem for gun control activists. The vast majority of deaths from guns are suicides. Many more gun deaths stem from domestic violence, other crimes and accidents than from public mass shootings. Yet advocates for gun control haven’t figured out how to draw attention to that daily violence, in between the far less frequent but more traumatic episodes. That takes the pressure off of Biden and his fellow Democrats to press the issue now.
Yet if they don’t emphasize gun control now, they can’t easily argue next year that they have a broad mandate, cutting across political and cultural fault lines, to act. Any newly elected Democratic senators may not be so eager to sign on to gun control legislation, especially partisan legislation, for fear of losing tenuous support at home.
Still, Biden is probably wise to put first things first. Erasing the political and cultural divide with a geographically broad victory is a necessary, if not sufficient, first step for creating a climate conducive to bipartisan cooperation and ultimate legislative success. If that means putting the gun issue on the back burner, even when gun deaths are in the news, so be it. But Biden and his fellow Democrats should be aware that any attempt at passing specific gun control measures in 2021 will be a heavy lift without first proving their popularity at the ballot box in 2020.