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No, Congress won’t pass gun background checks ‘like we’ve never had before.’ Here’s why.

Who’s got the hot potato now?

- August 23, 2019

Immediately after back-to-back mass shootings in early August in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, the stalemate on tightening gun laws appeared ready to shift. President Trump suggested that he favored background checks “like we’ve never had before.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) encouraged three GOP committee chairs to engage in bipartisan discussions on potential solutions. And House Democrats pushed the Senate to take up a bill to tighten gun regulations that the House had passed earlier this year.

But that momentum is already gone. Trump has disavowed his support for tightening background checks; only a handful of Republicans are still working on the issue; and the Senate seems unlikely to act on the House-passed bills.

That is not surprising. Despite broad public support for regulating gun ownership, Congress is unlikely to pass anything significant. Here’s why.

1. The media spotlight fades quickly

Right after the shootings, surveys such as last week’s NBC/WSJ poll found record-high levels of support for new restrictions on gun ownership. Nearly 90 percent said they favored requiring more extensive background checks; three-quarters supported “red flag” laws that make it easier for law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from individuals deemed to pose a danger to themselves or others; and three-fifths supported reinstating a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons.

While those are record highs, those numbers are not aberrations. Tougher gun laws consistently poll well in the wake of mass shootings.

But intense public support is not enough to push Congress to act. The intense media focus on guns after mass shootings soon fades. Economist Anthony Downs long ago called this the “issue attention cycle”: A dramatic event, like a shooting, attracts the media’s attention, provokes a rash of coverage and then fades from view when reporters move on to the next big event. As the media spotlight fades, so too does public interest and pressure for change — which lets opponents off the hook.

So the timing of gun violence matters. El Paso and Dayton took place when Congress was out of town on summer break. That is why Democrats in both chambers have called on Republicans to cut short the August recess. House Democrats will shave a few days off their break to hold hearings on tougher gun measures after Labor Day. Republicans have resisted, knowing that drawing the media’s attention back to the issue would increase pressure on Republicans to act — or they would be blamed for inaction.

Why is it so hard to regulate guns — when gun regulation is so popular?

2. The GOP is playing hot potato

Behind the headlines, Republicans have been playing a game of hot potato with Trump. That is, neither Trump nor McConnell seems to want to be caught with their hand prints on new measures to tighten gun regulations. All month, Trump deflected any questions about precisely what sorts of new restrictions he would support, telling reporters McConnell and his senators would work to come up with a plan. Even after news reports that Trump had promised NRA head Wayne LaPierre that tough gun laws were off the table, Trump continued to insist Republicans would work on a bipartisan deal.

Meanwhile, McConnell pushed back at the White House, suggesting Senate Republicans would not act until and unless the president took ownership of the matter. The issue will inevitably divide his GOP conference, McConnell knows — and so he has no intention of getting out ahead of the president. Only the president — immensely popular with the Republican base — has the political capital to take the heat for supporting new gun laws. Absent a commitment from Trump, McConnell seems unlikely to move first. Not public opinion in general but GOP opinion in particular is what motivates McConnell.

What political science can tell us about mass shootings

3. Even a weakened NRA is a potent barrier to change

A recent poll found that roughly half of Republicans backed the NRA’s opposition to any limits on access to guns. As political scientists Matthew Lacombe and David Karol have argued here in TMC, the NRA’s vocal activism and social networks of gun owners make it particularly influential. That might explain why the NRA has been able to convince Trump not to embrace universal background checks, particularly after the organization spent over $30 million on his 2016 campaign.

Strikingly, the NRA continues to have clout despite its financial and political scandals and leadership crisis. So far, its existential crisis seems not to have diminished its lobbying prowess. Perhaps Trump is an easy target, since he is so focused on keeping his base happy. Of course, what pleases his base could repel suburban GOP women — who strongly support background checks. But unless the president is willing to bear the political costs of battling a weakened NRA, the alliance between it and the Republican Party will doom significant congressional action.

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