Meaningful Change in Gun Control Policy Is Unlikely

A BU public policy expert explains why Newtown may not yield serious changes.

Calls for tougher gun laws sounded nationwide in response to last week’s school shooting, reviving the gun control debate that had remained all but dormant since the federal ban on assault weapons was allowed to lapse in 2004.

Although Republican leaders have already voiced opposition to reform, President Obama announced Wednesday that he will submit gun control proposals to Congress in the new year. “I will use all the powers of this office to help advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” President Obama said Wednesday. “It won’t be easy, but that can’t be an excuse not to try.”

Despite all of the talk about reform, Graham Wilson, a political science professor at Boston University and an expert on the relationship between interest groups and policymakers, is skeptical that it will yield meaningful results. He explains why significant policy change is unlikely:

1. The political influence of the National Rifle Association will be difficult for reformers to overcome—and their influence is likely to grow stronger in the coming weeks.

“The NRA is one of the greatest barriers to reform,” says Wilson. The NRA is the only interest group in Washington with major influence on gun policy, and they’re going to try and prevent any legislation from passing that would restrict access to guns.”

“You might get the NRA to move on something like background checks,” says Wilson. But that isn’t going to do much to prevent shootings like the one last week from happening again. “The reality is that the NRA isn’t going to fade away.”

2. The NRA is simply too big an ally to the Republican Party for them to act against its interests.

“Republican opposition is a fundamental risk that we face,” says Wilson.  “NRA supporters are a big constituency that Republicans have courted in recent years,” and they are unlikely to do anything to alienate them.

“The Republican leadership in the House has said nothing on the issue, and some Republican senators have already said that they will oppose [reform],” he says. “They’re going to slow it down through committee hearings, and gradually public sentiment [for reform] will fade.”

3. Although Obama won’t come up for reelection, a lot of vulnerable Democrats will in 2014.

It’s true: Obama doesn’t have to worry about reform affecting his chance of reelection, says Wilson—but Democrats in the House and the Senate do. 20 Democratic senators and 33 congressmen will be up for reelection in 2014, and many of them are from states that tend to favor gun rights, such as Montana, Louisiana, Alaska, Arkansas and West Virginia.

“Obama needs them to win to maintain support in Congress for the rest of his second term,” says Wilson, so Democrats are unlikely to push for laws that could alienate voters.

4. Even if stricter gun control legislation is passed, it’s not likely to reduce the number of guns out there in the short term (or ever.)

“We’ve allowed [this issue] to drift for so long,” says Wilson. “With each passing year, there are more and more guns out there.” There were more than 310 million non-military firearms in the United States in 2009, and that number has only gone up since then.

“We could do a buy-back policy like the Australians,” says Wilson, in reference to the program implemented in Australia in 1996, through which gun owners and dealers were paid for the surrender of newly prohibited firearms by the national government. “But that would take 20 years of sustained policy to drive the number of weapons down meaningfully—and even then we’re not we’re not going to get all of them.”

5. Gun control in Massachusetts isn’t enough.

Massachusetts has led the way on gun control more than once. We are one of a handful of states with a permanent ban on assault weapons—a measure signed into law by then-Governor Mitt Romney, shortly before the federal ban was allowed to expire at the end of 2004. And Menino joins New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg to advocate for stronger legislation. But laws passed on the state level aren’t enough, says Wilson.


With New Hampshire straight up the 95 or the 93, what difference does it make?”

Assault weapons that are legally purchased in New Hampshire or other states can be easily transported across state lines and illegally brought into Massachusetts. A nationwide ban is the only way to prevent this situationand Obama needs to get behind the ban in order for it to be successful.

“Obama commands the most national attention. He has a much higher prospect than a senator or a mayor of making this issue happen,” says Wilson. “The mayor of New York City doesn’t have the general credibility on this issue that’s required … Unfortunately [Obama] has a lot of other commitments,” says Wilson, “the fiscal cliff to name one.”