Frankly, supporters of gun controls have been naive.
It was naive to think "surely this time people will simply dismiss the NRA" - as if the NRA hasn't been doing exactly what it's done, successfully, for years.
It was naive to assume that convenient polling - "90% of Americans want an assault weapons ban!" - told the whole story on creating successful gun policy.
It was naive to think that one incident, however horrific, could reverse decades of inertia and resistance to changes on guns.
After each terrible shooting the past few years, I've listened to people say we need to "do something" about guns and tried to point out that the other piece of the puzzle - the deeply disturbed individuals who seem to fall through the enormous cracks in our badly broken system of approaching mental health - deserves as much, if not more, attention. This time, after Newtown, a number of conservatives, faced with immediate cries for gun legislation, lurched to the same proposition: the real problem is mental health, and that's the best plac to start.
It's telling, I think, that much promised legislative alternatives to address mental health have gone nowhere; I keep patiently watching John Cornyn, the loudest voice I heard, who promised "significant mental health legislation" within months. And.... nothing. The issues around dealing with the deeply disturbed - the lack of treatment options, the turning of mental health into a law enforcement problem rather than a healthcare problem, the challeges of separating the truly dangerous from the merely ill - are complicated, multilayered and touch on issues (like the ability of adults to make their own choices), that don't lend themselves to easy, blanket proposals. There's nuance needed. Our federal system does nuance pretty badly.
I'd argue that nuance is part of the problem on guns; the assault weapons "ban" is example A of trying to issue broad brush rules where the devil is in the details, of what isn't said and what isn't ruled out. While the ban of 1994 was somewhat successful, a vast array of exceptions were created to get around the rules, and did. People get that. And I think the idea of a new ban never quite overcame the reality that rules are made, for some, to be broken.
As someone who lives in the cultural and social world where guns are anathema, I share the sense of frustration that nothing gets done. But I've had gun owning and gun advocating friends and spent my time talking and listening to conservaives; many people on the antigun side don't, I think, appreciate the equally passionate opposing views on the other side. While antigun people lampoon the NRA and see Wayne LaPierre as a joke, the NRA knows that we are not their target audience. And the message they've pursued since Newtown is geared, primarily to people they can actually persuade.
The most obvious leg of that strategy has been to gin up agitation among gun owners - gun sales, ammunition sales, magazine sales, all soared ("They're coming to take away your guns!"). Indeed, the NRA hardly had to write that script: it writes itself. But the less noticed and less discussed strategy has been to layer confusion and disarray into the debate - that gun legislation is "too complicated," "won't work," and "doesn't address the real issues."
My own theory on guns was that if Newtown had an impact, it was on a significant margin: it was exurban residents, primarily women, who don't mind the idea of guns for protection, but are horrified by mass shootings, especially in schools, especially on kids. There was a moment, briefly, when these people were persuadable: it's time to do something; let's not keep doing nothing.
I think that's probably why we've seen as much progress on guns as we're likely to get - New York, Connecticut, and Colorado all saw fairly quick, bipartisan, comprehensive action, in part because the ground shifted in commnities further out from major cities (Newtown and the Danbury area of Connecticut, which abut Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess and Rockland counties in New York; Aurora and distant suburbs of Denver in Colorado). But the NRA has moved to beat back the tide and it worked. The further away you get from the epicenters of tragedy, the harder it is now to get action. Nationally, created inertia has set in: the NRA has convinced its target audience - those exurban women - that doing something is complicated, the proposals are not targeted, and it's better to wait. And yes... wait for what? More shootings? More contoversy?
But the lesson here is one, I think, that coastal liberals have to relearn again and again: that we live in bubbles, that there's a world out there of people who don't see what we see, get what we get, know what we know. Believing, as some do, that "the nation is with us" on guns is a fallacy and a dangerous one. The guns issue is complicated and sad and we live in a violent country with a dangerous and seductive gun culture; that's hard to fight, and complicated to undo. There will be more shootings. We cannot just eliminate the reality of guns in our lives. We can do something, or we can throw up our hands... and do nothing.
So nothing, it seems, has won again nationally. We've done nothing to better address mental health, we may barely regulate more gun sales and require more background checks (which, though well meaning, don't fully prevent gun possession in the wrong hands). And some time, soon, we'll probably see another mass shooting. I think the question is... have the forces that lost this gun debate learned something from the failures? Has anyone figured how to slow, or stop, the reach of the NRA? That, I think, is the depressing part, because I think when this happens again, this same dance in the molasses will start again. And inertia will win.