By and large, conservatives have won the cultural battle over guns in America. But the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the public outcry for gun control in its wake has opened some cracks in the usually monolithic defense of gun rights by conservatives.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott (R) has announced that he supports raising the minimum age to buy a rifle to 21, breaking with the National Rifle Association (NRA). Sen Marco Rubio (R-FL) in a televised town hall meeting signaled a willingness to reverse his opposition to banning high-capacity magazines. Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), a “longtime member” of the NRA, in a New York Times op-ed voiced his support for expanded gun regulations.
Even President Donald Trump has expressed his openness to strengthening background checks, banning bump stocks (devices that can modify a weapon to fire shots more frequently), and raising the minimum age to purchase an assault weapon — though he has made the more controversial idea of arming teachers seemingly the central plank of his gun control agenda.
Conservatives certainly come to the gun-control debate from a position of strength. The United States has the highest rate of private gun ownership in the world. Gun restrictions are lax at best. Concealed carry, once banned in many states, is now virtually legal in 43 states. And despite all of this, conservatives can rightly point out that violent crime — including gun-related crime — has plummeted since the early 1990s.
It’s in that context that the massacre at Parkland happened, and it may account for conservatives’ newfound willingness to budge on their decades-old stances on the Second Amendment.
The departures from pro-gun orthodoxy have not gone unnoticed. At last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, DC, NRA President Wayne LaPierre certainly did not sound all that interested in giving an inch on gun control. “Their goal is to eliminate the Second Amendment and our firearms freedoms so they can eradicate all individual freedoms,” he said of the push by gun-control advocates.
LaPierre’s defiant appearance only underscored that something rare is happening: genuine signs of discord on guns on the right, with some Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits breaking from a view of the Second Amendment that brooks no dissent.
Parkland is forcing conservatives to reconsider their all-out opposition to gun control
The ground may be shifting in the gun-control debate. All signs point to sustained public interest on the issue, thanks to the teenage activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
And for the first time in years, conservatives seem to be talking seriously about gun control. Charles C.W. Cooke, editor of National Review Online, told me that mass shootings are “for whatever reason, happening more and more, and the body count is higher than usual, [and] conservatives are saying, ‘Okay, well, this really is worthy of our attention.’”
But the question of what comes next gets complicated. And it would, when a Republican president who told the NRA, “I will never let you down,” is now making policy suggestions that are finding mainstream GOP support, but that the NRA and many gun owners find outrageous, even “dumb.”
I will be strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health. Raise age to 21 and end sale of Bump Stocks! Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue - I hope!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 22, 2018
Conservatives have generally responded to previous shootings with ideas that sidestepped the issue of guns, focusing instead on areas like school security and mental health. One week after 20 children and six staff members were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the NRA introduced its own plan to secure schools and prevent mass shootings from killing more students. It’s called the National School Shield program, and its aim is not only to stop a mass shooting but to develop “truly comprehensive school security plans” for schools nationwide through training programs and comprehensive recommendations.
At the 2013 CPAC, LaPierre said that the NRA’s School Shield program would protect students, while the left would put them at further risk. “To protect our children at school, we recommend a trained professional with a gun. They recommend scissors. And they say we’re crazy? That’s sheer madness,” LaPierre said at the time. “Here’s what the political elites offer instead — a placebo called ‘universal’ background checks.”
But “comprehensive background checks” are just what President Trump suggested after the shootings in Parkland — with support from many young conservatives and, interestingly, some support from the NRA. This isn’t necessarily a new turn for the NRA: After a shooting spree in a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church that killed 26 last winter, the group announced its support for legislation that would improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
The legislation would penalize federal agencies that fail to put new records (such as domestic violence convictions) into the system and increasing funding for reporting domestic violence. As NRA spokesperson Jennifer Baker said in December 2017, “The system is only as good as the data in the system, and the data in the system is severely lacking.” (I reached out to both Baker and her colleague Lars Dalseide; they did not respond by press time.)
In Florida, site of the shooting in Parkland — and generally a very gun-friendly state — the governor has called for raising the minimum age to buy any gun and a ban on bump stocks; the GOP legislature is also pushing for a three-day waiting period for gun purchases. Rubio and Mast, both Republicans, have stated support for somewhat stricter gun regulations, particularly on weapons similar to the AR-15, and Florida Democrats are campaigning on gun control directly for the first time in decades.
In Washington, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) last week said he might bring back a version of the bill he cosponsored with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), but that failed to pass in 2013, expanding background checks.
Other conservatives have stepped forward with their own ideas. One suggestion comes from National Review’s David French. As I wrote last week, he has suggested the expansion of the use of gun violence restraining orders (GVROs). With GVROs, a process could be set in place so that if a parent or close relative felt that a person might be a risk to public safety (or their own), they could petition for a hearing to have that person’s access to guns temporarily denied — an idea that’s received some support from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and from Trump himself.
To be sure, conservative ideas on how to stop the next massacre are still generally focused on school security and mental health. And what gun-control measures have been suggested are flawed, if well-intentioned. Others are non-starters — especially among gun owners. And none of them can do what liberals want them to do: cut down on the number of guns in America, full-stop.
The ideas are nonetheless notable for being proposed at all.
Is the newfound conservative openness to gun control for real?
As Florida — of all states — wrestles with gun control, there’s some reason to wonder if the narrative has changed.
Perhaps Parkland really was the last straw for some conservatives. Perhaps the fact that the occupant of the White House is no longer Barack Obama is also a factor. It’s easier to paint incremental reform as an indiscriminate gun-grab when the president is a liberal. With Trump, an NRA-backed Republican, as president, the knee-jerk opposition among gun owners to any gun control may not be as strong or urgent.
But it’s hard to say just how much movement can take place among conservatives on the issue of gun control. As one conservative pundit told me, on the issue of guns, “there’s a feeling that if you give an inch [to gun control advocates], you’ll lose a mile.”
And after days of teenage gun-control activists commandeering the media spotlight, the NRA has attempted to shift the conversation. LaPierre wasn’t initially on CPAC’s online schedule, reportedly to avoid confrontation with anti-gun activists. His speech Thursday sought to put the NRA back on the offensive in the national debate.
Meanwhile, in Florida, the NRA on Friday lambasted the proposals put forward by Gov. Scott and the Republican legislature, with Marion Hammer, the group’s longtime Florida lobbyist, calling the measures “gratuitous gun control.”
It’s clear the NRA is not going down without a fight against some of its erstwhile allies. But conversations are taking place among conservatives and longtime advocates for a Second Amendment interpretation that focuses on individuals’ unrestricted rights to own guns. And the very fact that these conversations are happening might be one reason to feel that this time could be different.