U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Capitol. Credit: Orhan Cam / Shutterstock
Jonathan L. Wharton

The unfortunate shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas is yet another reminder that the United States has progressed little when it comes to gun control. The right to bear arms is stated in the 2nd Amendment to our Constitution, but placing limitations on gun ownership is a highly charged issue. While some states – including Connecticut – have already codified various gun control measures, Congress has done little to address gun control nationally. Gun control policies – like other controversial issues – remain at an impasse in our nation’s capital.

My last column on another polemical policy area left some readers “disappointed” and there was even a rebuttal, written by Sarah Darer Littman. Although she said that I was “ignoring the facts” by leaving out partisan dynamics, she unfortunately missed the point that abortion stances for many are not purely a partisan stance since some Americans consider additional factors, like religion, for example.

Similarly, when it comes to gun control measures in Congress, it’s another complex issue that has gone nowhere because of the emotional, constitutional, and controversial stances brought forth in various proposals. And too many lawmakers emotionalize the issue as opposed to negotiating and confronting actual proposals. In other words, our public officials in Washington do little policymaking. 

Following the Texas shooting on Tuesday, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, went immediately to social media and to the Senate floor stating that, “there were more mass shootings than days in the year.” And he later added, “Why are you here if not to solve a problem as existential as this?” 

But what can the US Congress do about guns? Very little. In this hyper-partisan era, the institution is useless for resolving controversial policies like abortion or gun control. There’s little communication among lawmakers and virtually no respect across the aisle – and sometimes that’s the case even within a given political party caucus.

It’s no wonder that polls show that 80% of Americans view Congress unfavorably – and we have done so for several years (Conversely, I’ve often wondered who the 20 percent are that support Congress).

So, we have relied upon politicians playing on our emotions more than we have addressed specific policies or actual issues. Expect more of this political emotionalizing especially with this year’s election season and in 2024. Members of Congress make decent actors when they run for re-election.

How do I know? 

As a congressional aide for a half-dozen years, I worked for both sides of the political aisle and Washington politicians crave attention and the media spotlight. Some in Washington agree with the adage that, “Washington is Hollywood for the ugly people.”

Beyond emotions though, 2nd Amendment supporters are also highly organized and they donate to countless congressional candidates. They are an incredible lobbying force. And as a congressional aide, I quickly learned that those with the most connections, resources, and members gain a lawmaker’s attention.

Recent court cases surrounding gun ownership also reinforce the right to bear arms. District of Columbia v. Heller, for example, found the District’s law to register firearms unconstitutional, especially for self-dense purposes in residents’ homes. Aside from changing the 2nd Amendment’s language, which is unlikely to happen, gun control has its limitations.

It’s rare for me to end on a cynical note, but let me stress that watch for lawmakers emotionalizing issues like gun control. You have been and will be hearing more of it from our congressional delegation as well as additional politicians. Recognize they can do little about gun control reform. Instead, pay more attention to specific policies – especially at the state and local levels of government – than rhetoric.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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