In The Nation, Katha Pollitt suggests that in a new generation the NRA may have finally met its match. Could be. A spate of recent polls indicate a spike in support for some kind of action. If those polls indicate a permanent shift Pollitt may be on to something, though even then it is far from clear whether a shift in favor of so-called common sense regulation really signifies an emerging revulsion against guns and gun culture and the death of the NRA, both led by the young.
While there could well be a turn of sorts on the margin it could well be among all age categories. If I am suspicious of anything about Pollitt’s argument it is the breathless Age of Aquarius implication, so characteristic of Boomer vanity, that a child will lead us, just as America was delivered by a youthquake in Pollitt’s formative years.
It is true that polling data suggests that support for the NRA is lowest among younger Americans. But the fight over the NRA as a proxy for the fight over guns is also generationally-inflected. Boomers like Pollitt have been fighting the NRA/gun battles for decades and may not see that new generations are not just shock troops to be conscripted for one’s own side but are also going to bring to the broad question their own idiosyncratic views.
Unless one thinks that youth has suddenly been galvanized as whole–remotely possible but evidence please–this could well be a case of a slice of youth having louder mouths, with megaphones and podiums graciously provided by the media. This also reflects Boomer history. Even today a small slice of youth stands in for the whole in cultural memory of the Sixties and early Seventies.
So while keeping one eye on the newer polls and where they go is important it is worth looking back at past polling data, too. There, the issue of guns and youth is decidedly mixed.
While being less partial to the daddy’s NRA today’s youth have been somewhat less in favor of gun restrictions than their elders and are significantly more likely to think concealed carry will result in more safety. The rate of gun ownership is lower but guns are take seriously recreationally and in terms of safety by those that do own them.
Things change to be sure but they do not change on the two-dimensional axis that constitutes the default worldview of those getting on in years. Rachel Wolfe writes in Vox that “it’s possible that being born after the Columbine High School shootings and experiencing mass shootings as a routine event will change how (the young) think.” True, but what kind of change?
Will it necessarily signal gun revulsion in line with the Pollitt agenda?
Or might it be in favor of some restrictions but lack the underlying desire—palpable among many now both under and above the surface—for something like confiscation?
Or might it even reflect a mature consideration of the need for guns for self-protection, for the need to harden schools as targets, for the wisdom of arming teachers?
In other words is it possible that when the younger generation grows up a bit they will take this problem, left unresolved by decades of distrust from the edges, and solve it from the center out? Gun control and abortion are both issues that have been stuck in gridlock for decades, with partisans unwilling to give an inch for fear of slippery slopes to the other edge. The best way of stopping a slippery slope all the way to the other edge is to empower the center, and to bulk up the belly of the bell curve.
I can imagine a political and legal environment in which gun rights advocates feel that their backs are well protected against reinterpretation of the Second Amendment. And a social environment that reflects a general consensus against confiscation or anything like it. Perhaps in that environment we could see the kind of legislative debate we see with most other issues, with a reasonable muddling through of this or that weapon, this or that definition of mental illness, this or that process for buying or being precluded from buying.
That environment would meet the anti-gun advocates desire for some kind of action. The problem is that the conditions for it would otherwise be anathema: no progressive president, a judiciary remade under eight years of Trump, a Supreme Court not tempted to alter settled Second Amendment law and interpretation.
A less toxic environment would be healthy overall. It would expose the hardliners on both sides for what they are. That would mean marginalizing right-wing loonie holdouts. But it would also mean, as I pointed out in a previous post, shining a light on “liberal dogmatists who talk about guns because they don’t want to talk about inner city pathologies, deinstitutionalization or radical Islam.”