WASHINGTON – With teenagers walking out of schools in protest, staging die-ins in front of the White House, and planning a major national march next month in an effort to force America’s adults to focus on gun control, U.S. President Donald Trump has announced support for some modest reforms.
The president announced Tuesday a ban on the so-called bump stocks that transform a semi-automatic weapon into a de-facto machine gun. Trump said his officials were already examining the issue since last year’s Las Vegas shooting, and have now concluded it’s legal to make the change via presidential order.
The massacre at a Florida high school last week has unleashed a burst of political energy for an American gun-control cause that has suffered perennial disappointment, with this latest tragedy bringing young people to the streets amid strong public support for change.
“(We will) ban all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns,” Trump said after signing his presidential order instructing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to draw up new bump-stock rules.
“I expect that this critical regulation will be finalized … very soon.”
Trump has also announced plans to meet at the White House with school-shooting survivors and law enforcement over the course of the week to discuss possible solutions in the wake of the Florida massacre.
In addition, he has expressed support for expanded background checks to purchase firearms. Some Republicans are talking about introducing such legislation, although it could face a difficult slog in Congress.
But the limits of political movement on the issue were illustrated by other events Tuesday.
Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School looked on as the Florida state legislature easily voted down a motion to consider a wider ban on assault weapons, including the AR-15 rifle used to kill 17 people at their school on Valentine’s Day.
The students’ vocal public advocacy following the shooting has sustained a conversation, which in the wake of past atrocities has tended to flare for a few days then dissipate into the background noise of America’s myriad other national debates.
A new poll now suggests especially high support for reforms.
A Quinnipiac University survey found 66 per cent support for stricter gun laws, and 67 per cent support for a ban on so-called assault weapons. The numbers are even higher for targeted measures: 83 per cent of respondents favoured a waiting period to purchase firearms, and a near-unanimous 97 per cent said they supported an expansion of background checks to purchase a firearm.
But high poll numbers have failed to move the debate before.
Gun-control advocates have blamed the National Rifle Association; gun-industry donations to politicians; the organized lobby of gun-rights supporters; and even the U.S. Senate filibuster rules that prevented a majority from passing reforms after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012.
But a political scientist who studies how groups with minority opinions manage to prevail in political debates explored another reason, in a Washington Post piece titled, “Why is it so hard to regulate guns — even though gun regulation is so popular?”
According to Benjamin Bishin, professor at the University of California and author of “Tyranny of the Minority: The Subconstituency Politics Theory of Representation,” the debate tends to rally gun-rights supporters around their shared identity.
“Behind these (poll numbers) lie something else, the power of what I call subconstituencies,” Bishin wrote.
“(It involves) shared groupings built around people’s strong psychological attachments, or social identifications.”
He said that creating groups of people with an emotional bond to the other side — in favour of gun control — is challenging but it’s already happening: “Research shows that people who live near mass shootings, which is a profoundly life-changing experience, more strongly support regulating guns.”
The students’ surge of political activism has already begun a backlash from the pro-gun side.
Some right-wing commentators have attacked the teens, accused them of being coached by adults with an agenda, and suggested they lacked the knowledge to speak intelligently on the issue.
The debate will continue to play out at the White House this week.
Trump will meet school-shooting survivors and their parents Wednesday. He will also discuss the issue with law-enforcement, and with state governors in Washington later this week for their annual winter meetings.
“Everybody wants a quick and a simple answer. But there isn’t one. There’s not a quick and a simple answer,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
“But we want to make sure we’re addressing the problem.”