Dianne Feinstein vs. the NRA: Who Will Win?


Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is preparing to reintroduce legislation that would reinstate the expired assault weapons ban. The bill is expected to ban the:

“ ... sale, transfer, importation, or manufacturing of ... 120 specifically-named firearms; Certain other semiautomatic rifles, handguns, shotguns that can accept a detachable magazine and have one or more military characteristics; and Semiautomatic rifles and handguns with a fixed magazine that can accept more than 10 rounds.”

Important, too, are the parts of the bill that would grandfather:

“ ... weapons legally possessed on the date of enactment; Exempting over 900 specifically-named weapons used for hunting or sporting purposes; and Exempting antique, manually-operated, and permanently disabled weapons.”

The grandfathered weapons would also be subject to additional registration requirements, including serial numbers, photographs and fingerprints.

The National Rifle Association and guns rights advocates have been, well, firing back with everything they have. Sen. Feinstein's bill has been likened to racism, her talking points derided with mentions of picture books. She has been sent open-letters, a petition seeking her trial for treason has reached the threshold for response from the White House.

To sidestep the question of whether and to what extent gun control is needed in the wake of Gabby Giffords, Aurora, and Newtown, let me make the observation that the trajectory of political culture dooms Sen. Feinstein's proposed reforms. And not because of the most recent tarring and feathering. That's just a symptom of the long-running identity politics at work on the issue of gun control.

The popular discourse of gun control has diminished in the polarization of the issue into the competing frames “gun violence” and “guns rights.” Presented with the Newtown mass shooting, the first group sees this massacre in the frame of needing to reduce gun violence via curtailing access to deadly weapons. The second group sees the same massacre and underlines the importance of assuming the identity of a gun owner to protect yourself and your loved ones from criminals. The distinction here is subtle. The former group will frame the issue as one that needs an effective policy response. The latter seeks to preserve identity, to which others are a threat. This is why a number of NRA scare tactics paint gun control advocates as the out-group, desiring of policies that treat all gun owners as “common criminals.

In contrast to guns rights groups, there just isn't a strong presence of “anti-gun-violence” message boards online or interest groups or really much of any collective identification. The gun violence framers don't vote for political leaders on this issue so much as they consider it among many issues; gun policy is not an issue to wedge the lion's share of their political willpower.

To gun rights groups, it's an affront when someone who isn't a gun owner tries to tell you what to do by way of state or federal policy. This is the logic behind marking Sen. Feinstein as a member of the out-group by latching onto her “pictures of guns” comment. This is the spirit behind the comparisons of an assault weapons ban to racism. Gun rights groups, it is fair to say, have been fighting longer and harder to salvage their identity from a world of prohibitionist threats to their existence. Indeed, whether a person owns a gun is a better predictor of their party identification than sexual orientation, minority status, geographic location, and other demographic traits.

What this means is that the debate over gun control is always firmly in the frame of guns rights. All politically feasible gun reforms in existence are inherently conservative, preferential to and fearing of the gun lobby. Look at the proposed bill above. It bans one type of gun (And not even the type responsible for the most gun murders. That honor goes to handguns. Rifles account for 3% of gun murders nationwide.). Even where it bans this type, it has a clause that allows everyone who has this type of gun to keep their rifle.

There isn't a credible interest group to complicate the monopoly of the NRA, no competing identity of the liberal gun owner to balance herding effect of current guns rights advocates. It's possible Gabby Giffords may lead the sea change here, but that's unlikely to form in time to save Sen. Feinstein's legislation. Even in the situation where reform passes, it's neutered-on-arrival, tainting future proposals for gun control.

Heads the NRA wins, tails we lose.