The death of the assault weapons ban (which has only been delayed by Harry Reid’s change of heart) provides a stark illustration of two basic principles of American politics. “An interested and active minority will always defeat an apathetic and/or inactive majority.” A closely related principle is that voters’ willingness to hold politicians accountable on a particular issue depends on the “proximity” of the issue to their lives and interests.
The spate of high profile instances of gun violence, like the shooting at Sandy Hook School, impact the general public’s level of apathy, but since the vast majority of Americans still do not believe they or theirs are in any realistic danger, they do not convert nearly enough voters from passive supporters of gun control into active supporters of gun control willing to base their vote on this issue.
Republicans in Congress (and some Democrats) are still politically vulnerable enough on gun control to expect serious gains on this issue at the national level anytime soon. They can realistically expect to be challenged from the right if they break ranks on guns, and they cannot realistically expect to be insulated from such challenges by voters in the center or on the left.
The issue of gay marriage provides a useful example of what would be necessary to advance serious gun control policies in Congress. The public’s opinion of gay marriage and gay rights moved decisively left in recent years, not simply because the arguments against it are weak. More and more Americans have come to the realization that they have gay friends and relatives who provide living and breathing testimony to the folly of anti-gay marriage arguments. Like Senator Portman, more and more people are being touched by this issue in their own lives. Discrimination against gays and lesbians is not an abstraction to a rapidly increasing proportion of the American electorate.
Unfortunately, this means that gun violence will probably have to get MUCH worse before it is likely to be seriously addressed by Congress.