Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Republicans Should Pay for Their Gun Control Cowardice

Senator John Cornyn is killing a popular proposal to raise the minimum age for purchasing assault rifles to 21.
June 9, 2022
Republicans Should Pay for Their Gun Control Cowardice
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, listens during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Examining the Metastasizing Domestic Terrorism Threat After the Buffalo Attack in Washington on June 7, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Gun-safety advocates are perennially frustrated by their inability to translate widespread support for many of their key issues—as shown in polls going back decades—into successes in policy or electoral politics.

Among the reasons commonly offered to explain this failure: (1) an intensity gap between gun fetishists who oppose all restrictions and those who want reforms; (2) a theory that voters are actually more hostile to gun control in practice than they say they are in polls, as evidenced most famously by a universal background check ballot initiative that failed in Maine; and (3) a disturbingly widespread belief that none of the reforms that gun control advocates have proposed would have actually stopped the mass shootings that have singularly haunted our country.

For those of us who support reasonable reforms, the only way to change this ingrained dynamic is to embrace a different political approach—one that directly takes on these inhibiting factors.

Today’s news out of the “bipartisan” Senate talks provides an opening for such a change. Sebastian Hughes reports in the Daily Caller that concern troll John Cornyn has taken off the table a proposal to raise to 21 the minimum age to purchase semiautomatic shotguns and rifles. (Such a law already exists for handguns.)

Cornyn’s rejection of the 21-year age limit is craven, nauseating, insane on the merits, and more evidence that the GOP’s negotiations are in bad faith. It’s also politically self destructive: It puts Senate Republicans against the majority of their own constituents.

While all of that has been true of other gun reforms as well, this latest betrayal is unique for offering a political opening to Democrats that Republicans’ previous failures to act did not.

For starters, unlike background checks, this proposal has a visceral element that can inspire the passions of mainstream voters. Voters slept on the Manchin/Toomey failure because of the nature of the proposed reforms: It doesn’t take long for the debate over background checks to get stuck in the weeds of procedure and pedantry. There are also too many gaps: Perpetrators of mass shootings have often acquired their weapons in ways that expanded background checks would not have averted.

The proposal to change the purchasing age for assault rifles to 21 doesn’t have any of those limitations. Both the Buffalo and Uvalde shooters were under 21, and both purchased their firearms legally. (The Buffalo shooter later illegally modified his weapon to make it more deadly.) So we have direct, clear evidence that the new law would have, at a minimum, made it much harder for the killers to commit these most recent atrocities.

Might they have figured out a way to steal or borrow a gun? Sure—but that’s a hell of a lot more complicated than just rolling up to the gun shop, and it would have presented many more opportunities for failure along the way.

This is a very simple issue to “message.” The notion that high schoolers can access a semiauto but not a White Claw is much easier to understand than the endlessly multiplying subtleties of the background-check debate. Picture the ad featuring the nervous mom walking through a high school eyeing all the JV jocks, burnouts, and desperate wannabes carrying legal ARs; the MADD-style campaign writes itself. There’s also a built-in network of activists who don’t want these weapons in these kids’ schools.

On a recent episode of the “Next Level” podcast, Bulwark publisher Sarah Longwell made another smart point in support: If 18-year-olds can legally buy these guns, it’s much easier for their younger peers—15- or 16-year-olds, say—to get them, too, because they’re in class together. That dynamic goes away if the age threshold is raised to 21.

For all these reasons, even 59 percent of Republicans say they support raising the purchasing age to 21. And it’s why Republican Governor Rick Scott suffered no blowback from the right when Florida introduced this law after the Parkland shooting.

If John Cornyn and the rest of the Senate GOP caucus are so cowardly that they can’t even bring themselves to endorse Florida’s gun laws, then Democrats need to make them pay the price.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.