Analysis: History suggests attention on gun policy will fade well before the November elections

Roses, notes, candles and stuffed animals surrounded a fountain in the center of Uvalde Town Square on Sunday. (Kaylee Greenlee Beal For The Texas Tribune, Kaylee Greenlee Beal For The Texas Tribune)

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Time is the enemy. A week has passed since 21 people were murdered in an elementary school in Uvalde, an atrocity still at the center of public and private attention and concern.

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Gov. Greg Abbott and other politicians bound to gun culture are squirming, but history tells us public attention will subside, that voters will move on to other issues and that the Texas pols can relax into their ardent deregulation of guns, the No. 1 cause of death by injury for kids in the U.S.

The elected officials who have done little to protect Texans and other Americans after any of the mass shootings that came before Uvalde have something in common with the dumbfounding inaction of the 19 first responders who idled in a hallway at Robb Elementary for more than an hour last Tuesday while a gunman killed 21 children and teachers.

Those officials are frozen by their fear of what might happen if they act, governed by what the most zealous Second Amendment voters might do if they try to make gun safety a priority.

They are not the noble heroes we hoped they would be. They’re just scared. And it is a powerful fear, too, that can hold them at bay while people they have the ability to save are instead murdered.

They’ve literally made it easier to buy guns and ammo in Texas than it is to vote, or to get certified to cut hair or handle food. Only the first of those things — buying guns and ammo — requires no training, registration, licensing or certification.

Those lawmakers are doing their jobs as they see fit, tailoring their responses to the wishes of some of their most outspoken voters. Ignoring the massacre has risks of its own, but their political judgment is and has been that the wrath of gun rights supporters will be worse than the wrath of voters who think gun violence is out of hand and should be reversed.

What happened last week once again pits the deregulators against the consequences of their own work. Virtually anybody in Texas can buy or carry a gun, and that means virtually anybody will, trained or not, stable or not, evil or not.

It’s so scary that the uniformed officers in the hallway didn’t challenge the killer. It’s so scary that the lawmakers in Austin and Washington consistently side with the people behind the guns instead of the people in front of them.

Voters can fix this, if they want. Politicians are hypersensitive to voters, and if the mandate is for anti-violence, that’s what the conversations in the capitals will be about. Our recent history predicts apathy — that in a short time, voters will move their attention elsewhere while the interest groups whose livelihoods depend on gun deregulation persist.

A gun lobbyist is nothing but a persistent activist, showing up to work every day with a particular focus, always talking to lawmakers, bending policy long after others’ attention has wandered.

The rest of us? Not so much. That’s not just about gun safety. It happens with foster care, pandemic restrictions, just about everything. We’re concerned with the headline issues, for a minute, and then we go back to what we were doing. Those hyper-aware politicians, after a few days, only hear from lobbyists and interest groups and other professional seekers of government favors. It’s not surprising who usually wins the day.

The “good guy with a gun” idea was disproved by 19 good guys with guns last week. The promises of action that followed other mass killings have been undone by majorities of the 181 Texas lawmakers and the 535 members of Congress again and again.

The results haven’t changed because we haven’t changed. Our outrage faded after Sandy Hook, Parkland, Santa Fe, El Paso, Sutherland Springs, Odessa and all the others. Texas has had 21 school shootings so far in 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and based on the response of our policymaking politicians, the voters of Texas and of the U.S. are unstirred by that.

Now it’s been a week. The holiday weekend had the usual run of movies and grilling and family gatherings and parades. We get distracted. We put terrible things in our rearview mirrors and move on.

It’s true that the politicians haven’t solved this, and that failing belongs to them. They’re cowards, shackled by the fear that voters will be harder on them for doing something than we are if, once again, they do nothing.

That failing belongs to voters. The power to turn government heads is easy to understand and hard to exercise. All it takes is attention — and persistence, which is nothing more than sustained attention and action. Attention is easy; persistence is rare. Look at how many times we’ve been outraged by mass killings and how many times we’ve moved on and let the ardent gun rights advocates control the government.

Texas Republicans have controlled state government for more than two decades, consistently working to deregulate guns for years, believing that’s what their voters want, and Democrats are blaming them for the results and calling for new laws. That’s what their voters want. Remember, though, that Texas got its open-carry laws when Democrats had a say. That’s what voters wanted.

Politics is about words, but also actions. The Texas responses to shooting after shooting amount to an institutional defense of gun culture, preserving a ghastly status quo instead of remaking it.

That’s on the state’s voters. If what lawmakers were doing was out of line, we’d be punishing or correcting them, and that hasn’t happened.

They do represent us, and they’ll change things if we insist.

This is not an easy issue. There aren’t a couple of bumper-sticker solutions we can put into law to fix it. But the mindset, the will to solve the problem, doesn’t exist yet. It will take a long time and a ton of work, like coming up with vaccines in the face of an epidemic, or going to the moon or building a highway system. But lawmakers have promised action before and done little. They misled us, and voters should be as livid about that as the governor said he was about being misled by lies about law enforcement heroics in Uvalde.

We’ve seen for years the power of the small group of voters who control Republican primaries in Texas, and by doing so, control state policy. If you make it easier for a murderer to obtain a murder weapon, you should have to explain to the victims and everyone else why you thought that was a good idea.

Now’s the time.

Politicians don’t have to lose elections to get the message; they just have to get the message voters are sending. In 2018, Republicans won all of the statewide elections, but they knew voters were incensed about property taxes and public education, and in 2019, they came to Austin with those issues at the top of their priorities.

There’s an election between now and the next regular session of the Legislature next January. And if they hold special sessions on gun safety before then, as lawmakers from both parties have urged, that election will offer voters a chance to say whether they’ve done enough.

They’ll respond to gun violence, but only if a persistent public demands it.

Editor’s note: Ross Ramsey, who co-founded The Texas Tribune, retired as the Tribune’s executive editor earlier this year.

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