Members Only | August 9, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

What’s Behind GOP’s Shift on Guns

The simplest answer is best. 

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Why are the Republicans suddenly receptive to background checks? Why are they suddenly open to confiscating guns? (That’s what so-called “red flag laws” are about.) Despite thousands of people being maimed and murdered, the US has not moved ahead on gun safety because the Republicans have been united in saying no. 

Why the change?

We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. Odds are still that nothing serious happens. But it is noteworthy, at the very least, that Donald Trump is talking up background checks, that US Senator Lindsey Graham is talking up “red flag laws,” and that Mitch McConnell has yet to stanch such talk by invoking the image of the Grim Reaper

Instead, the Senate Majority Leader has said these ideas would be “front and center” when the Senate returns. He told a Kentucky news radio station: “I think the urgency of this is not lost on any of us, because we’ve seen too many of these horrendous acts.” 


“We better stop before we get caught.”


Again, this is stunning in no small way. The Times was right in reporting this morning that such legislation, if enacted, would “signal a fundamental change in the gun control debate” and would “immediately change the gun-control calculus.” By why is this happening? I can’t say I know definitively but it’s worth exploring the question. 

You could say the shift is due to normal incentives.

We are entering an election year in which the presidential incumbent is abysmally and historically unpopular. A huge number of Senate Republicans are up for reelection. A handful of them are quite vulnerable. Senate control is at stake. Trump risks bringing down his party if he loses. The Republicans may be thinking that they must at least pretend to care about the fact that more guns in circulation means more death.

You could also say, in the most generous terms, that the Republican Party is finally coming to its senses. Indeed, that’s the story Mitch McConnell seems to be preparing to tell if the Senate actually takes up gun-control measures already passed by the House Democrats. If that’s where this is going, McConnell will want to give the impression that the president and the Republicans are human beings after all with hearts that ache and eyes that weep at the sight of such “horrendous acts.”

There’s probably something to all this, but I favor the simplest explanation for complex phenomena. Occam’s Razor says: “We better stop before we get caught.”

The Sandy Hook massacre of 2012 should have been the “fundamental change in the gun control debate” that we are now seeing. Any compassionate, pragmatic and sane country would have said enough to honor the memory of 20 first-grade innocents.

But we had a black president back then, and we had a nascent fascist movement back then called the Tea Party that was reacting to the first black president and to awareness of social change that fascists were afraid would imperil their “way of life.” 

Twenty dead six-year-old kids were not enough to stop a torrent of fascist politics fomented by fear of a takeover by illegal freeloaders from shit-hole countries who would invade, rape and kill. Indeed, 20 dead six-year-old kids were a small price to pay. They sacrificed their lives so “we” can defend our “way of life” against “them.”

There’s no reason for carrying a semi-automatic rifle into a coffee shop, bookstore, church, library or school other than the desire to intimidate and terrorize people one believes should be intimidated and terrorized. All explanations for that desire are at root rationalizing. The Republicans knew such rationalizing was bullshit, and they knew over time that someone somewhere was going to take that bullshit too far. 

By “too far,” I don’t mean maiming and murdering people. The Republicans were fine with that. By “too far,” I mean Charleston, then Pittsburgh, and now El Paso. I mean white supremacists who say out loud they are slaughtering in the name of whiteness.

By “too far,” I mean political conditions in which GOP tolerance for hatred and for bloodshed became well-known across the electorate so that by the time of an election, the Republicans would be routed for the American Fascist Party they have become. 

Why are the Republican suddenly open to gun control?

“We better stop before we get caught.”

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

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