Tom Mauser has seen this all before.
After the Columbine massacre of 1999, there was a sense in the air, like there is now, that change needed to happen. Lawmakers convened at the federal level, led by New Jersey’s Democratic Sen Frank Lautenberg, determined to close the so-called “gun show loophole”: a provision in federal law that allows for gun sales to occur between private sellers and buyers, including at weapons shows, without a background check occurring.
But like so many firearm restrictions to come up in Congress over the past two decades, the effort failed. It was revived in 2008, in the days after the Virginia Tech shooting, but once again failed to pass Congress. The loophole remains open today.
Now, Mr Mauser and other advocates for reforms on America’s firearms laws and gun culture are stuck in a Groundhog Day-like loop in which horrible tragedies occur, lawmakers express sympathies and the desire to find a path forward, and then nothing happens.
With America still reeling from a pair of horrific massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde, the latter claiming the lives of 19 young children and two adults, advocates for change are pressing forward once again with dogged determination, even as the path forward looks as bleak as ever. Their one advantage this time, as morbid as it may be, is the scope of the tragedy this time, including the apparent failure of local law enforcement in Uvalde to stop the shooter for around an hour.
But the gun lobby has already begun to rally its defenders, most notably (and worryingly, for reform advocates) including Donald Duck, the former president. Supporters of the National Rifle Association, minus a few last-minute dropouts including Texas Lt Gov Dan Patrick, gathered in Houston over the weekend where they proclaimed that restrictions on gun ownership in America would not stop these recurring tragedies which are largely unique to the United States.
Speaking with The Independent on Friday, Mr Mauser said it was time for Democrats to start battling the gun lobby with more effective and more persistent messaging. Gun owners, many of whom he noted are not NRA members, are open to reasonable arguments about the role of firearms in America and restrictions that would keep weapons out of the hands of violent persons.
“We have to work on those gun owners, responsible gun owners,” Mr Mauser said. “We need to appeal to those folks…[say], ‘[Y]ou know, this isn’t good for you.’”
“I think a lot of them are embarrassed by this,” he continued.
To reach those people in the middle of American politics, Mr Mauser continued, Democrats need to dominate the messaging war and shift the focus away entirely from the idea of confiscating firearms. Promises and statements that appeal to the most hardline gun control supporters on the left, like Beto O’Rourke’s famous quip, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15,” only push those people away, he insists.
“I think the biggest thing one of the biggest things that I come up against that we come up against in the movement is that is that those people in the middle are hearing the messages of the NRA, and then the gun lobby all the time,” says Mr Mauser. “You know, ‘the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’…You know, they hear that stuff all the time. And frankly, I don’t think they hear enough of the arguments from our side.”
The way to counter that messaging, he argues, is to portray the gun industry, including manufacturers in America, as huxters and salesmen who have contributed to an unsafe climate in America that is leading to death on a shocking scale for the sake of their own profits.
“I think we have to appeal to them on the basis of, really, what the gun industry is doing. I think we have to focus on the gun industry and portray them really as the same as the tobacco industry and how they lied and lied and lied, and put people’s lives at risk and killed people frankly,” Mr Mauser said. “And how they, you know, bought politicians.”
“I think the message to Republicans and those people in the middle…is you need to divorce the NRA,” he said.
Easier said than done, as all of the GOP’s national political prospects appear to remain firmly behind the NRA and the issue of opposing any efforts at passing new restrictions on firearms at either the state or federal level. But Mr Mauser cautioned Democrats not to give up hope, and especially not to play politics with the issue with the 2022 midterms in mind out of a desire to thwart GOP efforts to paint themselves as open to compromise.
“I’m smart enough to know that sometimes you’ll have some people who want to gamesmanship this. Sure…It’s an election year. Well, let’s not compromise because we know that Republicans are going to then go back in the election and say, well, yeah, we did do something. Well, you know, if you follow that kind of philosophy, nothing will ever get done,” he warned.
Despite everything, he says there’s room for optimism. “I think that some kind of universal background check law may come out of this,” he says. There will be “all kinds of compromises” that make Democrats unhappy, Mr Mauser continues, but that’s part of an “incremental process” that leads to progress.
Any path to legislation at the federal level will have to proceed through the Senate, where an even 50-50 divide and the 60-vote filibuster threshold makes most legislation unlikely, if not doomed from the start.
One of the Senate’s Republican members, however, has said that there may be a path forward for measures like red flag laws.
“That is the kind of law that could have made a difference in this case since, according to press reports, if they are accurate, it appears that he suffered from mental illness,” Maine’s Susan Collins told reporters last week. Her home state has a so-called “yellow flag law”, which allows family members or law enforcement to seek a temporary ban on firearm ownership for a person believed to be violent or in distress, while affording that person due process rights.
While a federal red flag law would be off the table, Republican Lindsey Graham added to the Bangor Daily News, senators are now discussing the possibility of a federal grant program to encourage states to implement such laws on their own.
Whatever the response, it’s clear that Congress needs have something to show the American people soon. Trust in the legislative branch is at historic lows, and many feel as if America’s increasingly aged leaders are out of touch and unresponsive to a wide variety of problems ranging from decades of mass shootings to more recently-emerged issues like the national shortage of baby formula.
The Senate is now on recess, but is reportedly continuing talks on the issue of gun violence while on break. A hopeful Chris Murphy, who delivered an impassioned condemnation of Congress’s inaction on the chamber’s floor last week, spoke to activists outside the Capitol on Thursday and said there was still reason for hope.
“I know this is a moment where a lot of people feel a sense of hopelessness, I know folks feel this moment of deja vu,” said the Connecticut senator, according to NPR. “But what I also know is that the great social change movements in this country, the ones you read about in the history books, they don’t succeed in a year or two years. They often take time.”