Fill in the blank: No new law will ever stop a determined person from getting a(n) _______.
If you’re on the right, you might insert “assault rifle” and use that logic to help argue against any new gun control—even in the wake of Parkland and Las Vegas (and Columbine, and Aurora, and Virginia Tech, and San Bernardino, and Sandy Hook, and Sutherland Springs, and Orlando, and on and on). If you want to alleviate the problem of mass shootings, better to try and deal with the root causes, such as mental health, and then get more guns into the hands of the right people. (Pistol-packing principals, anyone?) Just keep your legislative pen away from anything that might incrementally infringe on Second Amendment rights. Bottom line: From my cold dead hands!
If you’re on the left, you might insert “abortion” and use that logic to help argue against any and all restrictions and regulations—even in the wake of Kermit Gosnell and StemExpress and 926,190 abortions in 2014 (and 1,608,600 in 1990, and 1,497,670 in 1979, and on and on, up to 60 million since Roe). If you want to reduce the number of abortions, better to try and deal with the root causes, such as poverty, and then get more contraception into the hands of the right people. (Safe sex for students, anyone?) But don’t even think about nibbling around the legal edges of the constitutional right to choose. Bottom line: Keep your rosaries off of my ovaries!
But most Americans are somewhere in the middle. According to a Pew study, a majority of Republicans support banning assault-style weapons, and three-quarters favor requiring background checks for gun show sales. Quinnipiac found that 62 percent in the GOP support banning gun modifications, such as bump stocks, that turn semi-automatic weapons into virtually automatic ones. On the flip-side, a Marist poll found that only 21 percent of Democrats favor legal abortion on demand for all nine months of pregnancy, and 56 percent support or strongly support a ban on abortions after 20 weeks. Far more Democrats strongly oppose taxpayer funding of abortions (24 percent) than strongly support such (15 percent).
Is there a deal to be had? Could a single bill be crafted that would do what large majorities of Americans support? On the pro-life side, ban abortions after 20 weeks (with an exception for the mother’s life) and make permanent the long-standing and bipartisan-crafted principles of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the direct federal funding of abortion. (Personally, I would love it if my tax dollars no longer even indirectly funded abortions at Planned Parenthood clinics, but sadly, a majority does not yet agree.) On the gun-control side, ban the future sale of bump stocks and certain assault rifles and close the gun-show loophole.
Hardliners will argue that mass shootings and late-term abortions will continue. They will, unfortunately. Those who are deeply determined to kill their offspring or their neighbors will doubtless find a way, but such laws might dissuade those only mildly determined to do such evils. That is a good use of legislation, in my book, and it may open a bit of public bandwidth to discuss seemingly forgotten topics that affect us all, like our 20 trillion dollar national debt.
I would not bet on its happening, though. Passion, not polling, drives politics. Motivated constituencies focused on a single issue usually trump the more loosely held views of the median voter. Thus, party leaders generally deem the voting scorecards from the NRA or NARAL of greater relevance than more widely held opinions. So, Democrats—including several Catholics, such as Senator Tim Kaine, who are “personally” though not professionally opposed to abortion—voted to filibuster the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, and the Republican leaders who could have moved a bump stock ban bill to the floor after the Las Vegas massacre did not.
That anti-majoritarian trend will probably hold here. True, our unpredictable president is showing some signs of moving on bump stocks, arguably the lowest-hanging of the gun-control fruit, since the NRA has not offered a full-throated defense. Most likely, though, little to nothing will change, and Republicans will face biting satire and be painted as gun extremists in left-wing circles. Democrats will face biting satire and be painted as abortion extremists in right-wing circles. The majority of Americans, who live outside these circles, will be left scratching their heads.
John Murdock is a professor at the Handong International Law School.