As night follows day, mass shootings in America are followed by a succession of Democratic politicians and liberal activists pushing for tighter gun restrictions. Almost as reliably, those efforts fail.
But in the wake of the massacre in Las Vegas, in which Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and injured hundreds more at an outdoor concert, there is reason to believe this time might be different.
Paddock used “bump stock” devices that effectively turn semi-automatic firearms into fully automatic weapons, causing a higher death toll. Republicans and Democrats in Congress have shown some support for a ban of bump stocks. House Speaker Paul Ryan has echoed the National Rifle Association’s preference for a regulatory ban, while a bipartisan group of 20 House members has introduced legislation that would make it illegal to manufacture, own, or transfer bump stocks.
There is also an openness to banning bump stocks among voters and officeholders in the battleground counties featured in The Race To 2020. All of these counties have strong gun cultures.
“I don’t think folks would get too bothered by [a ban],” said Donnie Douglas, who edits the Robesonian in Robeson County, N.C.. “We love our guns, but we hunt animals, not people, and I think folks here suffer so much from gun violence that they could see how this might be a good step forward. Remember, at our heart we remain a pretty Democratic county.”
“Even some ardent Second Amendment supporters agree that automatic weapons are a bit too far,” said Dr. Phillip Stephens, who heads the Robeson County Republican Party. Banning bump stocks, he said, is “one element that many Second Amendment supporters would not have a major problem with at all.”
Chris Chilson, an avid gun supporter in Howard County, Iowa, doesn’t oppose banning bump stocks. That’s in part because the use of bump stocks “give[s] anti-gun people ammunition (no pun intended) against us when we try to argue the right to keep and bear arms.” Chilson wasn’t sure how the restriction would play in his rural, northeast Iowa county, but said, “I don’t think many people would care much.”
North Carolina State Senator Danny Britt, a Republican, doesn’t agree. Britt, an Army National Guardsman, said lawmakers should be focusing on addressing the mental health crisis, not on restricting guns. “Unless every gun on the street is eliminated, people are going to find ways to get guns,” he said. “Frankly, if a few more people in the crowd had had guns, [the massacre] might not have been as bad as it was.”
Britt uses bump stocks himself for target shooting and doesn’t think there would be an appetite for a ban among Robeson County residents. The only thing restrictions do, he said, “is make it harder for people to do the right thing [when shootings take place.]”
Jack Brandenburg, a Republican state senator from Michigan, thinks anti-bump stock legislation makes sense, but he doesn’t think the idea would be supported in his blue-collar district in Macomb County.
People I spoke with didn’t think more expansive gun control measures were in the offing. Dr. Emily A. Neff-Sharum, who teaches political science at the University of North Carolina—Pembroke, said she doesn’t think there is much demand for gun restrictions in Robeson County. “I actually think that the Las Vegas tragedy may have the effect of pushing for even more loosening of gun control laws here.”
Chris Danou, a Democrat who until January represented Trempealeau County and parts of two other rural Wisconsin counties in that state’s Assembly, said there is little appetite for action on a gun control ban. Referring to the lack of congressional action after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, in which 20 children were killed, Danou said, “If kids getting murdered didn’t change the conversation, I don’t know what will.”
With a couple of exceptions, Democrats in Congress have been much more measured in their response to the Las Vegas shooting. After the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub in 2016, Democrats staged a high-profile sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives to demand action on gun control. This time, most Democrats have been more restrained, even avoiding the word “gun control” and instead using phrases such as “gun violence” and “gun safety” to discuss the issue.
Most congressional Democrats have instead focused their attention on smaller measures such as the bump stock ban. This is probably a bow to the reality that more sweeping gun control laws are a nonstarter in the Republican-controlled Congress.
It may also be an acknowledgement by Democrats that their stance on guns doesn’t win them many votes in swing states. Six Senate Democrats from rural red states are up for re-election in 2018, and none has committed to supporting more gun restrictions since the Las Vegas massacre.
Todd Mensink of Howard County, Iowa, thinks “Local Democrats would be hurt if they specifically came out in favor of gun control.” Joe Heim, who teaches political science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, thinks that many red-state Democrats “would rather not have to vote on anything comprehensive” for fear of angering their voters.
But whether accomplished legislatively or through regulation, a bump stock ban seems to be a safe proposal for both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who no doubt want to be seen doing something in the wake of the worst mass shooting in recent American history.
As Mark Locklear, an independent voter from Robeson County, wrote by way of explaining his support for a ban: “As an outdoorsman and gun owner, I don’t want my right to bear arms affected. But something has to be done.”
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