Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.
We’ve good reason to feel numb. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, in which twenty small children were murdered, a couple of pathetically limited gun control proposals went nowhere in Congress and ten states passed 17 laws weakening gun restrictions. The gun control movement in this country is a pathetic failure.
There is, I think, only one realistic way forward for advocates of stricter gun control, and it involves adopting the tactics of one of the most despicable groups in contemporary American politics: the anti-abortion movement.
Things surely seemed similarly hopeless for the anti-abortion movement after Roe v. Wade. But within three years, with deft lobbying and the instrumental support of Catholic bishops, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, forbidding poor women from using Medicaid to cover the cost of an abortion.
That was the prelude to a series of impressive victories. The number of abortion providers in the United States peaked in 1982, and fell precipitously over the next twenty years. By 2005, 87 percent of U.S. counties lacked an abortion provider. In 2010, a wave of ultra-conservative politicians swept into state legislatures across the country. They passed more abortion restrictions in two years than were passed in the entire previous decade.
These victories were not easy. Americans are broadly pro-choice, with a comfortable majority supporting legal abortion. But the few who ardently oppose abortion have been able to skillfully exploit a certain squeamishness most Americans feel about the procedure that leads them to tell pollsters that abortion should only be legal “in certain circumstances.” Stuck with the fact that abortions are, for the foreseeable future, a Constitutionally-protected right, the conservative movement has decided to make it as difficult as possible for as many women as possible to exercise that right.
They have succeeded, politically, in making incoherent compromises (abortion is murder but we shouldn’t jail women for it, abortion is murder but we should allow women who’ve been raped to receive abortions) sound like the “moderate” positions in the public debate. They have taken over state legislatures and the entire Republican party. They have passed broadly unconstitutional laws to force legal challenges. They have passed narrowly constitutional laws designed to make getting abortions difficult and expensive. They have intimidated and terrorized abortion providers and pregnant women. They have shut down every single clinic in Mississippi but one, and they have passed a law designed to shut that one down, too. The Supreme Court might, in its upcoming term, allow Republicans to end abortion in every state in which they hold power. If the court doesn’t do that, Republicans will just try again in a few years.
These are the political victories, again, of a tiny movement that does not actually have public opinion on its side. But they fight harder than almost any other political movement in the United States, because it is, for them, a moral crusade. If you believe, as this small core of anti-abortion crusaders do, that a fetus is a human infant, then unwavering fanaticism absolutely makes sense.
Meanwhile, a first-grader is self-evidently a human being. Yet when it comes to the slaughter of walking, talking persons, cut down helplessly by weapons specifically designed for killing, we behave as if nothing can really be done. When it comes to protecting the lives of actual children from gun violence, fanaticism seems to be in order.
This doesn’t just mean marches and protests. It means constant marches and protests, and open and blatant harassment of your political opponents. It means protesting at the homes of gun manufacturing company executives and trying to shut down gun stores. It means very publicly making a scene at as many gun shops as possible, and personally attacking—verbally, but bordering on physically—people trying to enter those stores to legally purchase guns.
After all, the point of screaming at women outside a clinic isn’t to erect a legal barrier to abortion access, it’s to prevent that woman from getting an abortion, and to dissuade others from even considering it. It’s to prevent abortion from being considered a legitimate option. Aren’t there a couple thousand gun control activists out there passionate enough to want to stand outside gun shops and provoke confrontations with open-carry wingnuts?
It also means going all-in on gore. It means waving gruesome photos of dead children in the faces of Republican legislators, gun store owners, and gun manufacturers. This is where the conservatives shine. Good liberals are too squeamish to look past the police tape. They worry that if they focus, up close and without flinching, on the goriest details of the carnage, it’ll glorify violence, or worse, inspire future killers. Maybe, but it’ll also scare the shit out of future killers’ mothers before they fill their houses with guns, to feel safe.
Anti-abortion activists revel in gore. They want to get their cameras in the room to capture the most stomach-churning images possible and broadcast them to the world. Gun control advocates hoist signs with pictures of smiling cherubic kids, taken before their lives were cut short. Anti-abortion activists put up billboards with graphic photos of blood and fetal tissue. There will need to be graphic photographs of bullet-riddled corpses. There will need to be more of this:
Our lawsuit was not frivolous. Our Jessi was shot multiple times with high-velocity, armor-piercing bullets that were designed by our military to inflict maximum damage on enemy combatants.
One of the six, steel-jacketed bullets that killed her slammed through a theater seat, entered her left eye and left a five-inch hole in her face as it blew her brains out on to the theater floor. The other five specially designed bullets tumbled when they tore through her flesh and did devastating damage to both legs, arms and intestines.
Changing things means focusing, as Slate’s Justin Peters did for years, on children who die in “accidental” gun deaths—and calling those “accidents” what they actually are: criminal negligence by irresponsible parents or guardians. It means publicizing and nationalizing every single disgusting story like this and publicly vilifying parents who keep loaded guns within the reach of children.
The one thing America’s local news is good at is scaring the hell out of parents. If television can successfully make parents nationwide terrified of the mostly imaginary threat of stranger-abductions, it can surely manage to whip up a comparable (and much more reality-based) fear that your neighbor’s kid might have easy access to a loaded handgun. The government isn’t going to seize anyone’s guns any time soon, but with a few years of concerted fear-mongering, mothers across the country could begin work on that project themselves.
If the gun control movement actually, really wants to change America’s gun culture, they will have to put the least reasonable and the least accommodating activists they can find in charge of directing the entire movement. In order to achieve a realistic outcome, the anti-gun movement needs to fight, passionately and vociferously, for an unrealistic goal. Don’t campaign to expand background checks. Fight like hell to ban all private gun sales, and watch as expanded background checks becomes a politically palatable compromise. Keep fighting, and eventually “I support banning handgun ownership for everyone besides childless victims of domestic assault” becomes the politically palatable compromise position.
These passionate activists will have to seize complete control of the Democratic Party and force it to adopt a position that is significantly more hardline than most of its actual constituents might be comfortable with, damn the supposed electoral consequences, just as the anti-abortion movement has done to the Republican Party. That means getting to the point where Democrats in Congress feel expected—effectively forced by their base—to call American small arms manufacturers and their lobbyists before Congressional committees to publicly abuse them and threaten endless, expensive investigations into their practices.
Now, in 2015, an all-encompassing and inflexible opposition to abortion is a requirement for anyone seeking office as a Republican. That is actually a recent and fairly remarkable political victory.
One generation ago, the Bush family, the standard-bearers for the Republican mainstream, were not just pro-choice, they were ardent supporters of Planned Parenthood. George H. W. Bush changed his position for political expediency, but did little to actually make the complete elimination of legal abortion more likely. George W. Bush went a bit further, signing the “partial-birth abortion” ban. Jeb Bush is even further to the right than either of them. He has promised to make opposition to Roe v Wade a litmus test for his Supreme Court nominees. An equivalent judicial litmus test for gun control is the most obvious initial demand to be made of the Democratic Party.
And until the balance of the court is shifted, there are numerous gains to be made at state and local levels, just as the anti-abortion movement chips away at abortion access, working slowly toward the big prize. Sufficiently motivated state legislatures could regulate gun sellers practically out of business. Licenses to sell guns could be made nearly impossible to obtain. Gun stores could be required to comply with onerous “security” and “safety” laws making it practically impossible to make money selling guns.
This is obvious enough stuff, and it is already happening in a (very) few liberal enclaves. It is the sort of stuff Michael Bloomberg’s anti-gun group was supposed to work toward. But Bloomberg came at the problem like a rich person: He spent a lot of money. This is, generally, a successful strategy in American politics. And Bloomberg is smart enough to spend that money building political infrastructure in various states, rather than wasting it on pointless television ads or parachuting into congressional districts to support hopeless candidates.
But the anti-gun movement doesn’t need money as much as it needs fanatics.
Almost every single clinic in the United States that performs abortions has reported experiencing at least one incident of harassment. There are 130,000 gun stores in the United States. It’s time for gun control activists to get familiar with them.
Art by Jim Cooke