Late last month, the United States recorded yet another mass shooting. This one took place on a Friday afternoon in Virginia Beach, when a not-so-civil servant mowed down several of his co-workers at a municipal building. The shooter killed 12 people before he was shot dead in a gun battle with police.
That sort of atrocity is now commonplace in this country, too frequent an occurrence to command more than a few days’ attention outside the community in which it occurs. The U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population, but we account for nearly a third of the world’s mass shootings. Another month, another attack by a deranged gunman in the land of the free and the home of the armed.
But this shooting was followed by something not yet commonplace but becoming more frequent: A few days later, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, called a special session of the legislature to take up gun control measures. That action not only gave urgency to his proposals but also put Northam under the white-hot scrutiny of a disapproving gun lobby — a place that most politicians, especially in purple states such as Virginia, had spent decades avoiding.
Ever so slowly, in fits and starts, the political landscape around the push for sensible gun laws is changing. Finally. The National Rifle Association and its allies are losing their iron grip on Congress and state legislatures around the country. Fewer politicians fear the wrath of the gun lobby.
Credit goes largely to the young activists who took the stage after the February 2018 massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 students and staff dead. Student leaders refused to settle for the “thoughts and prayers” that had become the familiar refuge of elected “leaders” too timid to push for serious gun control measures. The students marched on Washington, staged demonstrations around the country, took to television commentary shows and endured the mockery of right-wing talking heads.
Their efforts — aided by gun control groups such as the Giffords Law Center, named for former Rep. Gabby Giffords, a mass shooting survivor and gun control activist — have changed the legislative climate. Last year, for the first time in several years, state legislatures around the country passed more gun control measures than pro-firearms proposals pushed by the gun lobby, according to The New York Times.
The students’ activism also was assisted by the NRA’s own self-inflicted meltdown, the result of years of grift and self-enrichment by its leaders. Continually peddling dire warnings of a pending confiscation of firearms by an autocratic government, the NRA has raised hundreds of millions from frightened gun owners persuaded that “jack-booted” government thugs were waiting to seize their weapons. But its principals used much of that money to support lavish lifestyles, and the organization is now struggling financially, according to published reports.
That changed climate has given Northam some room in which to maneuver. As recently as 2007, the Virginia Legislature refused to pass a relatively toothless gun control measure in the wake of a mass shooting that took the lives of 32 people at Virginia Tech. Republicans, assisted by a couple of Democrats, bottled up a bill that would have required mandatory background checks for firearms sales at gun shows. This time, however, Northam might be able to get a bill passed. Noting the shifting landscape, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who was the state’s governor back then, said Democrats now “run using gun safety as an offensive issue,” rather than trying to hide from it or deflect, as they once did.
That doesn’t mean that we will relinquish our leadership in mass shootings anytime soon. There are more civilian-owned guns than people in the U.S., according to the Small Arms Survey — about 327 million people, about 393 million firearms. We own 42 percent of the world’s guns, enough to guarantee that the havoc will continue for some time.
But thanks to some courageous young Americans, we might have found our way back toward sanity. Their future may be a safer place.