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Can Liberals Finally Defeat the NRA?

The rise in white supremacist shootings could change the politics of gun control

Protesters hold a rally against gun violence in Times Square in response to recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Denton, Ohio on August 4, 2019 in New York City. Photo: Go Nakamura/Getty Images

TThe weekend’s deadly massacres in El Paso and Dayton served as a grim reminder of past inaction on gun policy. Even posting the famous Onion headline “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” on social media has become a kind of ritualistic cliché.

In the past, such atrocities have quickly faded from the public consciousness because gun-rights groups are better organized than their gun-control rivals, as well as able to more effectively inspire their members to vote their beliefs at the ballot box. Due to fears of the outsize political influence of pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA), few Republicans are willing to break ranks with the NRA, while Democrats who represent rural and swing districts often seek to avoid taking positions on guns that could endanger their seats.

However, the growing salience of high-profile shootings by white nationalists could change these dynamics. According to the New York Times, the El Paso shooter was the eighth linked to racial or ethnic hatred since Trump took office — a trend that mirrors an apparent increase in extremist violence motivated by white supremacy. While it is difficult to prove the role of political rhetoric in any specific event, the parallels between Trump’s racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric and the hateful language in manifestos like the one posted by the El Paso shooter are obvious and undeniable.

Democrats who are running for president are already seizing on the weekend’s events with messages that yoke anti-racist appeals with calls for greater gun control. Former Vice President Joe Biden, for instance, wrote on Twitter that “White nationalism is the problem. America’s inaction on gun safety legislation is the problem.” Similar tweets were issued by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (“guns are a tool that white supremacists use to fulfill their hate”) and New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio (“we’re facing an epidemic caused by white supremacy and easy access to military-grade weapons”).

These appeals are likely to find a receptive audience. A majority of Americans already believe Trump encourages white supremacist groups. In particular, white Democrats, who are increasingly racially liberal, may devote greater passion and resources to the issue in an effort to prevent extremist violence they believe the President is tacitly encouraging or tolerating. (In general, the burden of gun violence also falls disproportionately on racial and ethnic minorities.)

The opposite pattern may occur among supporters of gun rights, whose intensity could wane if white supremacist violence continues to divide the movement. So far, Republicans have struggled to address the El Paso massacre or the seeming trend it represents. The NRA is currently mired in internal conflict, leaving it ill-positioned to respond to a changing issue landscape. Meanwhile, several conservative outlets and Republican politicians have forcefully denounced white supremacy in their responses to El Paso, suggesting that the politics of the issue are changing as ritualistic invocations of “thoughts and prayers” ring hollow.

Any change in the politics on gun control won’t happen overnight, nor will it prevent Trump or Mitch McConnell from blocking gun control measures passed by the Democrat-controlled House. But if right-wing extremists continue to use guns to carry out mass murder, the gap in energy and commitment between gun-control supporters and opponents could soon begin to close — or even reverse.

Professor of Public Policy, University of Michigan

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