The political fates of two very different items high on the liberal-progressive agenda this past week illustrate both the inherent limit of legislative action and the power of motivated and organized social movements backed by a powerful cultural narrative. The issues? Gays and guns: two hot-button wedge issues that have terrified left-leaning politicians for decades.
First, gays. The big news on the gay-rights front, of course, is the airing of arguments at the Supreme Court over the merits of striking down California’s anti-gay marriage amendment, Proposition 8, and the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which prohibits the Federal government from recognizing gay unions even if they are recognized at the state level.
If the court overturns both this would be not just a major victory for gay rights, but THE victory – with a single act of judicial fiat the court could reverse centuries of discrimination against gays and lesbians by fully recognizing their right to marry. This, more than anything else, would establish not just the cultural fact of gay liberation, but ultimate victory in their quest to be incorporated fully in all aspects of American life. It will, in other words, do for gays what the striking down of Jim Crow did for African Americans a few generations earlier.
Regardless of how the court rules – and it is by no means certain that a full overturning of both will occur – the liberals wins. That’s right, even if they lose both cases, the cultural zeitgeist on gay rights has changed so much in the last twenty years that such a ruling will be seen as not just illegitimate, but the last, desperate gasp of cultural conservatives to keep a grip on a country they have already lost.
Not just have Americans moved to support gay rights, but they have done so in overwhelming numbers – especially among the young. This has prompted an avalanche of politicians, even a few Republicans, to switch positions on gay marriage to reflect the changing political reality on the ground. Soon, the only people still opposing gay rights, like interracial marriage, will be the Bible-thumping, back-country yokels in rural backwaters like Mississippi or Idaho. Indeed, even Rush Limbaugh has given up on turning back this new cultural reality.
Contrast this near complete culture-war victory with the likely defeat liberals will see on substantive gun control efforts in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. At best, Democrats may be able to pass universal background checks over all gun sales – including, for the first time, the roughly forty percent of guns that are purchased at guns shows, where no background checks are currently required. While no doubt a victory if it occurs, this is rather weak tea.
Originally, gun-control advocates had suggested that a re-imposition of the assault weapons ban, which was lifted during the Bush administration, might be in order. Certainly, revelations that the Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook gunman, had used a popular rifle known as the Bushmaster to mow down little children would seem to provide good justification that a crackdown on these weapons are needed. Political reality, however, points in a different direction. This direction was sensed by none other than Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, who withdrew the proposed assault weapons ban from consideration for fear of not having enough votes – including ones from his own party.
Liberals, predictably, were outraged — which prompted first Vice President Joe Biden and then President Obama to make the case that more action is needed to fight the scourge of gun violence. Meanwhile, the billionaire mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, has promised to spend millions of his own money to defeat the National rifle Association’s campaign against post-Sandy Hook gun legislation. Still, even with most polls still indicating broad, if diminishing, popular support for the administration’s tepid proposals, skittish legislators in both the House and Senate look sure to block, or at least water down even further, any Federal action on guns.
What explains this contrasting outcome? Why have liberals succeeded so overwhelmingly on gay rights that even a total defeat at the Supreme Court will likely reap huge electoral benefits whereas the bullet-ridden corpses of first-graders is not enough to move Congress much on gun control? While the two issues differ substantively in many respects, perhaps the most important is the way in which their stories have played out on the cultural front.
America’s gays and lesbians, for instance, have built a substantial social movement over the past forty years to establish themselves as just another part of the larger American family. They have done so by following the path set down first by the ‘60s Civil Rights movement, which was then followed up by feminists and other groups seeking to be emancipated from majoritarian discrimination. While the political and legal aspects of this strategy has been most noted in the media, far more important has been the long transformation of public perception of gays from being wholly negative to, today, being mostly benign.
This change in perception has come about in two ways. The first, of course, is through the mass media. Coverage of gay activists, especially during the AIDs epidemic of the 1980s, brought wider public attention to discrimination against. This was in turn followed up by revelations that past celebrities, like Rock Hudson, were gay which, in turn, made it easier for current celebrities to come out of the Hollywood closet.
The second way this change in perception occurred was through face-to-face interaction with gays and lesbians as they screwed up the courage to reveal their sexual identity to family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Gays and lesbians could no longer be demonized so easily when people stopped seeing them as an insidious other and simply as John from work or Sally from down the street. Try as they might, anti-gay preachers and pundits could not teach Americans to hate people whom they came to understand as human beings very much like themselves. Once this was achieved, the rest, both electoral and legal, have come easily and rapidly because gays and lesbians won over the culture.
Gun control, however, does not lend itself to a narrative such as this. It is easy to give rights to people, but much more difficult to take away things, even such manifestly deadly things as a Bushmaster in the hands of a deranged maniac, which are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a right by a large portion of the American population. Murdered children make for sensational news, but in the end guns are things whereas gun owners are people. Being people, they have of course presented, like gays and lesbians, their own narrative that rings true to the American public.
It does so because its emphasis on self-defense corresponds with popular perceptions. The news media, for instance, highlights crime and violence in their newspapers and daily broadcasts because, like sex, danger sells. We are not likely to tune in or pick up a dead-tree newspaper if all it reports is that America is a mostly peaceful, non-violent place for the vast majority of its citizens. If it bleeds, it leads – and public belief in the prevalence of crime is much higher than it actually is. We are, in fact, living through one of the greatest declines in crime in recorded American history – but you wouldn’t know that if you watch the evening news.
Similarly, popular entrainment is soaked in violence. Television dramas present American cities as being besieged by crime while movies often glamorize gun-wielding criminals and the tough-guy psychopaths who inevitably take them down. War, like crime, is presented as both entertaining and manly while the real costs of violence are rarely, if ever, shown on screen. We are often shown short shots of grieving widows or orphaned children, but feature-length films on the devastation that a single act of violence can wreak is something hardly ever seen on the silver screen.
In short, conservatives have consistently won the argument on guns, regardless of how many innocents are massacred, because the culture reinforces the notion that crime and danger are omnipresent and recourse to violence is both righteous and masculine. The emotional response that guns evoke in those who own them, no matter the logic of the other side, will never be broken through so long as the broader culture continues to insist that nothing, no one, and nowhere is or ever will be safe from violence.
A school massacre like Sandy Hook is a case in point. Far from supporting the gun controllers’ position, it instead merely stimulates the culturally inculcated fear that, naturally, turns to more guns, armed guards in schools, and more militarized police as a solution. Violence is the solution to violence – that is what our culture teaches – and so the logic of a “good guy” with a gun being the answer to a “bad guy” with a gun resonates emotionally. That it is wrong, that every indication is that more armed societies are more dangerous and deadly in every way, doesn’t matter. Emotion trumps logic most every time.
So what is to be done on the gun-control front? Is America to be perpetually doomed to endemic gun violence and periodic massacres of the type that we have become mostly dulled to? The answer to that is yes, unless gun-control advocates can somehow shift our cultural discourse and understanding of guns in the same way gays and lesbians changed our discourse and understanding of homosexuality.