WASHINGTON They won’t do anything meaningful about guns until you force them to with your votes.
This time, following the Parkland massacre, does feel different from all the other times. But I fear the outcome will always be the same – thoughts, prayers, furrowed brows and no real action – until the Republicans who control Congress and so many state legislatures start losing elections because of their obstinacy on gun control.
They need to fear you and me more than they fear the National Rifle Association.
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No amount of moral suasion will work. The slaughter of 20 first-graders in Newtown, the murder of 58 innocent country music fans in Las Vegas, the near-fatal shooting of one of their own, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. – no atrocity has been senseless or vile enough to shame the GOP into doing something to keep military-style assault weapons out of killers’ hands. Why should the deadly rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School be the tipping point?
Optimists might point to two wild-card factors we’ve never seen before: the fierce eloquence of the young Parkland survivors and the inconstancy of President Donald Trump.
The students’ activism began immediately, nullifying the customary first move in the GOP-NRA playbook, which is to solemnly pronounce that it is “too soon” after an act of unspeakable horror to even mention the instruments of that horror. Anyone who tries to open a debate on gun control is accused of politicizing tragedy.
“This is not the time,” Republicans say, fully intending to make sure that the time never comes.
In Parkland, though, the voices quickly calling for action on guns were those of students who hours earlier had seen their classmates mowed down by a troubled young man with an AR-15 – students who could easily have been victims themselves. No one could question their right to speak. And they did not mince words. The issue, they made clear, was the gun.
A 19-year-old known to acquaintances and authorities as disturbed and potentially violent had been able to buy a powerful weapon designed to rip human bodies to shreds on the battlefield. Practically anyone can walk into a gun shop and buy such a weapon. As long as we make such instruments of mass destruction so available, what on earth do we expect?
Republicans would like to change the subject to mental health or background checks, but the students from Parkland have unique standing to keep the focus on guns, where it belongs. Opponents of sensible gun control are so unnerved that they have made shameful efforts to discredit these young activists – a slimy campaign of lies and innuendo that fortunately has backfired.
The kids are staying on message. The NRA’s little helpers can only bleat and squeal. Yes, this face-off is different. And yes, it’s encouraging.
And then there’s Trump. He took an absolutist guns-for-everybody position on the Second Amendment during the campaign, and stuck with it even after the Las Vegas mass shooting, the worst in modern U.S. history. But before he entered politics, he was no diehard opponent of gun control. He could not help but be affected by his meeting Wednesday with gun violence survivors. And despite what he told them, if you strapped him to a lie detector I’d bet you’d discover – before the exhausted machine gave out – that he doesn’t really think arming homeroom teachers is a solution.
Trump has talked about tougher background checks and promises to ban accessories, such as bump stocks, that can make semiautomatic weapons fire like machine guns. According to news reports, he has been muttering about the need to do more. He surely wants nothing more than to be lionized as a great president, and Republicans in Congress are afraid to cross him. He could pull a Nixon-to-China and demand passage of a tough new ban on assault weapons.
But he won’t. He has neither the good sense nor the courage. The president and his party are not going to act, so we must.
The easy part is counteracting the gun lobby’s financial clout; if they want to, gun control advocates surely can match the NRA dollar for dollar in House and Senate races. The hard part is matching the gun nuts in sustained passion. Gun control is a more important issue for opponents than it is for advocates.
When we begin to insist that our elected officials support life-saving gun control measures, and throw them out of office if they don’t, we'll get a ban on the mass shooter’s weapon of choice. We just have to care. And vote.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.