Gun control advocates are trying to invigorate the long-ossified debate on national gun laws in the United States. This means filling the moment of public attention caused by the mass shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut.
Public demonstrations are one way to claim the space, define the problem, and press for political action. This started right away, with the vigil on Friday afternoon (pictured above), right outside the White House. The numbers were small, but the background dramatic and the message clear. Activists are asking the president to put together a plan before the State of the Union address next month.
The vigil outside the White House has been imitated in cities and towns across the United States (e.g., here and here). Partly, it’s that people want to do something in response to the pain in Newtown, Connecticut. But there’s also a cumulative sense of power and possibility that comes with people taking action. New action on gun control seems more likely to matter now than just a few weeks ago.
In Washington, DC, activists have moved from the White House to directly targeting the National Rifle Association (NRA), explicitly blaming the organization for stopping even the smallest reforms.
Focusing on the organized interests preventing gun control is a way to build solidarity among advocates. It’s also an effort to drive a wedge between at least some elected officials and the organization. The visible defections from absolutist opposition to any new laws (see Senator Joe Manchin, for example) is a start.
Could we actually see an informed debate on the issues? Are there viable alternatives? I’ve said that data could help, and here’s a good start on data. GunPolicy.org collects data on gun laws, ownership, and crime around the globe. It’s a good place to start when thinking about whether things have to be the way they are.
But one more thing: attention is limited. Always. Putting gun control on the agenda will crowd everything else, pushing something to the back burner. When Barack Obama was elected president, he promised to press for huge reforms in health care, action on climate change, and immigration reform–among other things. By the time his health care reform was passed, he had pretty much lost the coalition needed to do much else.
This time, running for reelection, Barack Obama again promised action on the environment and on immigration reform. Newtown has put gun control on the agenda as well. Activists won’t worry about what it will crowd off the agenda, but bet that the White House will.