You’re either with us — or you’re with the terrorists.
That’s the bumper-sticker argument gun control supporters appear to be picking up and running with after the Orlando massacre — a massive rhetorical amping-up in the wake of the most deadly mass shooting in American history.
“It is now accurate to say that one party believes the Second Amendment extends to terrorists and the other party does not,” said Jim Kessler, a leading gun control advocate with the centrist think tank Third Way.
Gun control supporters say reframing the gun debate in a with-us-or-against-us context is aimed at putting pro-gun Republicans in a tough spot politically — and helping them leverage the fact that 80 to 90 percent of Americans consistently support gun control policies like expanding background checks.
Republicans, of course, would scoff at that. They proposed a bill that would prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns if the attorney general proves within 72 hours that the person could indeed be a potential terrorist. Democrats counter that’s an improbable burden that essentially amounts to keeping the status quo of letting people on the FBI’s terrorist watch lists buy guns. Both proposals failed in a vote Monday in the Senate.
But this isn’t about legislative language. This is about November. This is about control of the Senate. This could even be about control of the House of Representatives. Guns have the potential to be a major campaign issue in the presidential race, too.
And gun control supporters think they now have a major puzzle piece that could help their movement lessen the glaring intensity gap between them and the NRA. It helps that the injection of national security into the gun debate coincides with a growing, more sophisticated gun control movement — more money, more intensity — and a steady drip, drip of mass shootings.
The gun control movement sees this rhetorical shift as a natural progression. The various groups that coalesced after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre are now on the air in key Senate races and backing gun control ballot initiatives. They’re texting their supporters to call their lawmakers, just like the NRA does. They’re coordinating with the formidable LGBT advocacy community, which presided over one of the fastest shifts of public opinion in an issue in modern memory. They’re getting the Republican-controlled Senate to allow votes on their proposals.
“After Sandy Hook, it took four months for the U.S. Senate to vote,” said Erika Soto Lamb with the Michael Bloomberg-backed gun control group, Everytown for Gun Safety. “After Orlando, it took four days.”
It’s important to remember that success in the context of gun control is relative. Very relative. No gun control legislation has passed since the 1990s when Congress approved limited background checks.
Still, gun control groups are heartened that vulnerable GOP senators like Sen. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, who is in a tight reelection race with the state’s popular Democratic governor, appear to be signaling they’d be open to at least some compromise.
In past votes on guns, Ayotte has sided with her Republican colleagues. But on Monday, she voted for both the Republican and Democratic versions to prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns. And she’s helping draft a potential compromise between the two. And talking a lot about it:
Gun control advocates like the Gabby Giffords-led group Americans for Responsible Solutions say they’re the ones putting pressure on her to reconsider her position.
They’re running a TV ad in her state highlighting her vote against a 2013 background check bill. Ayotte responded with a Web ad a day later saying she voted for a Republican version that, in her words, was a background check bill.
The back and forth over her record continues, but it’s notable that Ayotte even feels the need to defend her gun control record, instead of her pro-gun record.
Zooming out of Washington, there’s another reason the gun debate may have shifted in favor of gun control after Orlando. No longer is gun violence just an inner-city problem, Kessler said in a recent interview with The Fix. Guns have shattered Americans’ sense of safety in the most benign places — a college campus, a night club, an office party, an elementary school.
And that means that, in time, more people will see the issue of gun control as one that affects them.
“We’re at the intersection of the Second Amendment and extremist terrorist action,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s in anyway impossible to respect Second Amendment rights and to do more to keep terrorists from getting firearms in America.”
We’ll find out in November if Kessler and his ilk are any closer to achieving the legislative and political successes that have eluded them for decades.