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Culture, Politics, and Guns

The interlocking problems that make the reform of gun laws so difficult.
June 1, 2022
Culture, Politics, and Guns

[On the May 27, 2022 episode of The Bulwark’s “Beg to Differ” podcast, guest host A.B. Stoddard asked Tom Nichols about the prospects for a bipartisan gun bill. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy has taken the lead on talks, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has directed Sen. John Cornyn to work with Democrats.]

A.B. Stoddard: There was some report that a hundred Republican politicians have used guns in their campaign ads this year. Do you think that there’s any way that any of them can talk across the aisle about this and get at some kind of a compromise? I know . . . those Republicans . . . are not going to say, We need to ban assault weapons. They’re not even going say they need to be locked up at a target practice place. . . . We know that it’s going to be minimal, but where do you see the debate at this point on compromise, because there is so much . . . extreme rhetoric coming out of Republicans. . . . What do you think that the possibilities are for some kind of middle ground that Democrats could get ten senators to okay this year?

Tom Nichols: I’m over in the pessimists’ corner with The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last, who said, This will happen again; there’s not going to be any progress; there are too many guns already in circulation; the gun culture is out of control. Can you change that culture over the course of ten or twenty or twenty-five years? Maybe, but you have to want to, and I think the interlock here—the really dangerous thing—is that the Republican party . . . believes in nothing. It believes in power. It believes in propagating its own re-election purely for the sake of its people being in office. When that threads along a primary and a voter base that doesn’t just like guns, but as you said, a fetish, an obsession . . . a weird fixation—not just on guns, but on some of the most powerful guns. . . .

I grew up around guns. My dad and my brother were both police officers. We had guns in the house. I saw guns all over the place in my neighborhood. Everybody had shotguns and pistols, and WWII vets and Korea and Vietnam vets . . . had weapons. But it wasn’t this kind of creepy fascination with the black guns, with the shiny weapons that are made to kill human beings. When those two things are locked in together, there is no incentive whatsoever for the Republicans to deal on anything, and there is every incentive for them to say, Let’s own the libs again and show how we’re not going to compromise on anything.

Where’s the middle ground? I don’t know. You might get ten senators to agree to some kind of an enhanced background check that isn’t going to stop a guy like the shooter in Texas. I’ll add: Linda [Chavez] mentioned red flag laws. David French, actually, is one of the few people that stepped out and said, More red flag laws. But . . . you’re going to run into people saying, This is a snitch culture, it’s an informer culture, it’s a surveillance state. And also, you don’t really have any protection for good Samaritans, who are going to drop a dime on somebody and then potentially get sued or find themselves in some kind of legal hot water.

Until we change this culture—and I don’t know how to do that, because the minority that is rock solid for keeping things the way they are [is] clustered efficiently in certain voting districts that then put a lock into the legislative process. It’s not like they’re spread out . . . throughout fifty states: This is a particular regional and political problem that then creates a structural lock on doing anything about it in the legislature. So that was all a long way of saying, “I’m really pessimistic, unfortunately.”

Stoddard: Yes, minority rule. Everything comes back to that, Tom, you’re right.

Tom Nichols

Tom Nichols is a professor emeritus at the Naval War College, where he taught for 25 years. The author of The Death of Expertise and Our Own Worst Enemy, he writes the “Peacefield” newsletter for the Atlantic. Twitter: @RadioFreeTom.