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Liberals Have Failed on Gun Violence for Two Decades: To Win, We Need To Get Over Ourselves


In the wake of another mass shooting, America is talking about gun control again.

It’s been uplifting to see the determined young Parkland students speaking out. They have organized nationwide walkouts, bussed their classmates 450 miles to Tallahassee to petition the state legislature, and confronted lawmakers at a nationally televised town hall. George Clooney, Oprah, and other celebrities have donated millions. It feels like a fresh and energized new movement is afoot.

It’s inspiring. And, unfortunately, it is probably doomed to fail.

This is not the first time gun control advocates have attempted to rally Americans in the wake of a mass shooting. But a look at our track record doesn’t inspire confidence. Over the two decades since Columbine, after even more frequent and deadly shootings like Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Orlando, and Las Vegas, gun control advocates have not only failed to get stronger laws passed, they have seen existing laws overturned or weakened.

Ohio, Iowa, and Missouri expanded concealed carry laws. Wisconsin abolished the 48-hour waiting period for purchases. Florida passed the first “stand your ground” law in 2005, and 23 states followed suit. A Clinton-era federal ban on assault weapons was allowed to lapse in 2004. While laws both increasing and relaxing gun control have been passed at the state and federal levels, Harvard researchers have shown that, in the aggregate, lawmakers tend to relax gun laws following a shooting.

The failure of gun control seems even more astonishing when you look at polling data. Over 80 percent of Americans support background checks. Sixty percent of voters support stricter gun control in general. A majority of Republicans want stricter gun control, and a majority of gun owners support measures like a federal database to track gun sales and barring sales to people on watch lists.

I’ll say that again: this is an issue where a majority of Republicans and gun owners agree with liberals.

You don’t see that every day.

If gun control enjoys support from voters on the right and left, why then have liberals failed so miserably to make progress on it?

To understand this failure, we need to understand the priorities of lawmakers. It turns out that the American electoral system is very responsive to small groups of motivated, organized voters. Because voting isn’t mandatory, victory goes to those who show up, especially in primaries, mid-term, and special elections. An organized minority can often out-fundraise and out-vote a passive majority.

What academics call “preference intensity” matters in this context. An individual voter cares about many issues, but, naturally, some issues matter more to her than others. Only issues near the top of her priority list will determine her turnout and how she votes. The particular minority of voters who oppose gun control have a very high preference intensity around the issue. They are three times more likely than gun control advocates to donate to political campaigns. They are one-and-a-half times more likely to contact elected officials.

Lawmakers know that liberals usually mobilize briefly and push for gun control following a shooting, but aren’t organized for sustained pressure. Elected officials have learned that if they do support gun control, liberals often cannot mobilize the votes to defend them a few months down the line, when the news cycle has moved on and the passion has died down. Take an example from Colorado. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, two Democrats in the state senate, Angela Giron and John Morse, took the lead on passing gun-control laws. The following year, they were ousted from office in a voter-initiated recall election and replaced by Republicans.

This is why Marco Rubio is willing to look a 17-year-old shooting survivor in the face and refuse to disavow NRA support. This is why lawmakers are willing to shut survivors out of their offices. And this is why the Florida state legislature is willing to vote against considering an assault rifle ban while weeping Parkland victims watch from the galleries.

In America, it’s not enough to have a majority. We must organize and mobilize that majority and get them to the polls in every election. Here’s the hard part: in order to do this, we have to get over our own emotions and get outside of our cultural comfort zone. We need to build an issue coalition that will include one group we’ve maligned, and another we’ve ignored.

First, we must include gun owners who support gun control. These are valuable allies whom we foolishly alienate with rhetoric. Some liberals are disgusted by anyone who owns guns. Letting this feeling guide our messaging is self-indulgent, and doesn’t serve any tactical purpose. We need to stop virtue-signaling and understand that gun ownership, even love of guns, in and of itself is not necessarily the problem. Switzerland and Canada show that it is possible to have relatively high gun ownership, better gun control, and a much safer community. We should also re-frame the issue. “Gun control” is probably the wrong wording. No one wants to be controlled. Thinking of the effort positively and using phrases like “gun safety” or “responsibility” would work better.

Second, we need to ally with those most affected. Mass shootings like Columbine and Parkland are horrifying, but the 100 or so deaths per year that result from these kinds of attacks make up only about 1 percent of the 13,000 gun homicides per year. The vast majority are concentrated in our poorest neighborhoods. A significant number of these communities are predominantly black. We have an opportunity here to join with and learn from experienced organizers and activists who understand gun violence better than we do. We are currently sending the wrong signal by ignoring the vast majority of gun violence and centering the national conversation on affluent victims. This undermines the sustainability and passion of the movement.

We should allow the anger, agony, and frustration of Parkland to motivate us, but it cannot be our sole organizing principle. To realize the power of our untapped majority, we must stop preaching and start listening. We must stop indulging in our own emotions and focus on the issue, rather than wallowing in our class-based and tribal political cultures. We must build a broader coalition, organize, and mobilize a sustained movement, and get voters to the polls so that lawmakers can make the changes we want.

Matt McDole is a Master of Public Policy student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a managing editor at the Kennedy School Review. He served two tours in Afghanistan and is a graduate of the University of Virginia. He is passionate about journalism and untold stories.

Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull via Flickr

Edited by James Pagano