Ahlin: Collins, Heitkamp win praise in Senate gun control debate
FARGO -- No matter your stance on guns, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and North Dakota's own Heidi Heitkamp deserve credit for putting together a "no fly, no buy" bipartisan gun bill. Bipartisan legislation of any kind on the national level is pret...
FARGO - No matter your stance on guns, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and North Dakota’s own Heidi Heitkamp deserve credit for putting together a “no fly, no buy” bipartisan gun bill. Bipartisan legislation of any kind on the national level is pretty much nonexistent in today’s political climate. Make it about a hot-button issue - particularly guns - and regular gridlock becomes fixed. More people believe in Bigfoot than believe Democrats and Republicans want to find middle ground to further the national good on guns.
So let’s honor the effort. Collins (safe in her seat) and Heitkamp (with a greater chance of political ramifications) have left the sidelines to attempt what has been impossible, finding middle ground on guns. The endeavor is tricky. When it comes to guns, political middle ground is like thin ice: Politicians are always one step from disaster.
That’s why most elected representatives accept the status quo and also why efforts to find common ground are seen by them as a waste of time. After all, why do the right thing when the safe thing is so easy. Our elected representatives know they can get away with doing exactly what they’ve always done because the electorate would be shocked should representatives behave as if a recurring American tragedy was more important than covering their own political backsides.
We live in a world where pessimism feels like realism most of the time. Not that the electorate is without blame in the fiasco guns have become, of course. The reason our representatives expect us to be a fickle group about guns is that we rarely disappoint. They know sympathy for gun violence victims and their families is a passing passion for voters. All they have to do is wait us out.
And yet ...
The Orlando tragedy seems different. Perhaps it’s the compounding of tragedy upon tragedy - Sandy Hook, Aurora, Colorado Springs, Charleston, San Bernardino - that turns this greatest mass shooting in our history into a clarion call.
Tragedy after tragedy has taken us to the brink, but thus far the weight of common sense has not tipped the scale. Nor has public opinion held sway: 90 percent of Americans want stricter gun laws. That includes 70 percent of gun owners and 75 percent of Republicans. But elected officials by and large stay under the pall and in thrall to the NRA.
The simple truth is that Americans vote less on principles and beliefs than on cultural identity. (Basic disagreements on guns, abortion and homosexuality aren’t called “culture wars” for nothing.) If asked individually, people on the left or on the right can envision a reasonable middle. However, when they vote, they are out to affirm the cultural identity that gives them comfort. Their identity doesn’t have to make sense or serve their own interests to feel right.
When it comes to guns, what we’ve ended up with is intimidation by the gun, a condition largely inflicted by the NRA, a group that is more successful at bullying legislators and fear mongering the public than any other organization in the history of the nation. The right to hunt, target shoot, or protect oneself are not now and never have been seriously questioned. Conflating those legitimate reasons for gun ownership with something like assault rifles - good only for killing in a military operation - is like saying your Ford pickup is going to be taken from you because you aren’t allowed to buy an armored tank and drive it on the highway.
Unfortunately, once the fiction of gun rights being under attack was treated as fact by the NRA, national commonality in the moral meaning of gun violence was lost. Talk to us individually about mass shootings and we agree; talk to us collectively and we retreat to our corners.
What Collins and Heitkamp along with a small group of senators want to do is get America out of its corners of disagreement and into the ring of agreement. It’s a worthy step that deserves support.
Ahlin is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead,
which is a part of Forum News Service.