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Why the boundaries of the gun debate never waver
(Or... the Schattschneider lecture, Part 2)
There’s a lecture I’ve been giving in my Strategic Political Communication class for nine years now. I know it’s been nine years because Sandy Hook was in December 2012. In spring 2013, we spent the whole damn semester talking about the aftermath of Sandy Hook. And there was one piece of that semester that has become a core part of my curriculum ever since.
In the classroom, I use the NRA’s response to Sandy Hook as a case study for understanding E.E. Schattschneider’s concept of conflict expansion. Which means in turn that we can also use conflict expansion to understand the brutal strategic logic of the NRA’s response to these senseless fucking tragedies.
So here goes…
Sandy Hook should have been the breaking point. A gunman in suburban Connecticut shot up an Elementary School. Twenty kids were killed. And, folks, these were predominantly white kids. If the government isn’t going to be moved to action by the murder of 20 white kids, then it isn’t going to be moved to action by anything.
For a week after the shooting, the NRA stayed silent. No public statements, no public comms. It seemed, for that week, like even the NRA realized something had to give.
A week later, NRA President Wayne LaPierre held a press conference in Washington, DC to address the shooting. I attended a protest outside. A reporter asked me what I was there for. I remember I told the reporter “I think we ought to regulate deadly weapons in this country at least as much as we regulate Sudafed.”
LaPierre’s statement was a signal that the NRA had thought it through and decided not to give a single inch. His solution was “more guns in schools.” “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” He blamed the media for creating a culture of violence — video games like Mortal Kombat, and movies like Natural Born Killers.
That bit always stood out to me. Mortal Kombat came out in 1992. I played it in the arcade and on consoles when I was a teenager. Natural Born Killers came out in 1994. I wasn’t old enough to see R-rated movies or drive myself to the movies when Natural Born Killers was in theaters. The NRA had a full week to plan its response to the Sandy Hook shooting, and it didn’t even bother to update 20-year-old cultural references.
Sandy Hook was enough of a shock that the Senate spent months fiddling with a bill to do something. Joe Manchin (kinda-sorta-D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) put together a universal background check bill. Universal background checks were (and are) overwhelmingly popular. Even NRA members, when polled on the issue, said they supported it. It is literally the most basic thing that the Senate can do beyond passing a “thoughts and prayers” resolution. And the NRA, after wavering a bit, came down hard against the bill. It failed with 54 votes in favor to 46 opposed, proof that the filibuster has been a stupid impediment to representative governance for a long time.
Why didn’t the NRA give the tiniest bit of ground in response to the most horrifying tragedy you could script for American media?
That, friends, is where we come to Schattschneider.
Close readers of this substack may remember that I’ve written about Schattschneider before, in “Talking Bretbug in the classroom.” The Bretbug example focuses on conflict expansion:
“the trick to turn a losing situation into a winning situation is to change who is involved in the fight. The side that wins a contentious episode isn’t the one making the best argument; it’s the one determining who is involved and what they will be fighting about.
Schattschneider also discusses the other side of that dynamic though. If every contentious political episode involves a group that is actively trying to reshape the boundaries and terms of the debate, then it also involves a group that is trying to maintain the existing boundaries.
The side that has been winning tries to maintain the existing conflict. The side that has been losing tries to expand the conflict. The Bretbug example is a textbook case of successful conflict expansion. The Sandy Hook example turns out to be a textbook case of successful conflict maintenance.
The NRA has, for a generation, successfully defined the terms of the gun debate in the United States. You are either “pro-Second Amendment” or “anti-Second Amendment.” Legal scholars will jump to point out this is nonsense. Historians will point out that even the NRA has changed its stance on this topic. But Schattschneider reminds us that “Political conflict is not like an intercollegiate debate.” The dominant political cleavage doesn’t need to be based in facts or reality.
The strategic problem for the NRA in the aftermath Sandy Hook is that, if they agree to support widely popular, utterly reasonable policy proposals like universal background checks, then the dominant frame begins to slip. Once they acknowledge that, yes, there are certain time, place, and manner restrictions that should apply to deadly weapons, then the broader contours of the debate start to be recast around questions like “what other restrictions on deadly weapons are utterly reasonable and in the public interest?” And that is a debate that the NRA and the gun manufacturers are ill-suited to winning, because their stance is patently ridiculous in a way that kills tens of thousands every year.
The NRA can only keep winning the gun debate so long as the NRA maintains control of the conflict. It took them a week after Sandy Hook to stiffen their resolve and determine even now we will insist that the answer to deadly weapons is more deadly weapons. Once they had settled on that stance, the rest was boilerplate. Why even bother to update the outdated media references? Stick with the classics. Stick with what has worked so far.
So what is to be done?
The bad news here is that Schattschneider’s conflict expansion theory suggests that basically nothing is going to change the NRA’s stance. Public opinion isn’t going to change their stance. Public outcry or hard-hitting journalism will leave them unphased. They will fight tooth and nail to maintain the current boundaries of the conflict, and they will continue to push the elected officials who crave their approval to demonstrate their “support for the Second Amendment” through ever-more-batshit-insane measures.
But the good news is that, if and when we finally start to beat them, change will begin incrementally but should accelerate from there.* It won’t just be background checks. It will be background checks and then loophole closures and then assault weapons bans and then and then and then. Once the NRA starts to losing, once the dominant conflict successfully expands, things can potentially change fast.
I don’t expect that to happen soon. It’s been a decade since Sandy Hook, and every part of our political system has gotten so much worse than it was in December 2012.
But this won’t go on forever. And today, pondering yet another Elementary School shooting, wondering how it has been this bad for this long, I find a sliver of understanding in Schattschneider’s framework.
The NRA cannot be reasoned with. It is in their strategic interest to remain unreasonable.
But they can be beaten. And the small victories will eventually cascade.
It won’t happen soon enough. It is already far too late for far too many.
But it can happen.
And I expect, with time and organizing, one day it will.
*This leaves the matter of the Supreme Court aside. Schattschneider’s theory isn’t applicable to Supreme Court jurisprudence, and the 6-3 radical conservative majority is a distinct problem that is going to require a separate (court expansion) solution.