This series, by BANR founder Ted Wachtel, applies the concept of citizens’ assemblies to an urgent need that the U.S. Congress avoids — gun violence and how to prevent it. Wachtel identifies the reasons legislators can’t do it and why a diverse group of citizens can. No longer theoretical, in the last few years citizens’ assemblies have been used around the world to make thoughtful decisions about challenging and often controversial problems.
Reason #1: Congress won’t deal with gun violence, because legislators are afraid.
Support for Gun Control
Recent polls show that the vast majority of Americans want universal background checks for the purchase of firearms, and “red flag” laws to prohibit selling firearms to high-risk individuals.
61% blame gun violence on easy access to firearms.
On the other hand, a small but influential minority of Americans fiercely oppose any further restrictions on gun ownership, and fears that government wants to take their guns away.
Even though gun deaths in the U.S. have reached their highest level in 50 years, with almost 40,000 deaths by firearm each year—109 killed each day—the last year that the federal government managed to pass laws limiting the use and spread of guns in the United States was 25 years ago, in 1994.
- No other issue has touched the American public so emotionally as gun violence, especially in the wake of multiple mass shootings.
- No other issue—not the economy, healthcare, environment, immigration or foreign policy—cries out so urgently for solutions.
- And no other issue more clearly highlights the impotence of our political system.
Congress and the President are paralyzed by the political impasse.
As a veteran Congressional lobbyist once observed, legislators “would like to do the right thing, if only they can get away with it.”
But legislators must please their donors, or risk losing their financial support in the next election. That sad fact was starkly demonstrated in November, 2017, in the weeks before the vote approving the tax cut bill.
“My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again,” said Representative Chris Collins.
Senator Lindsey Graham admitted that if the GOP didn’t pass the bill, “contributions will stop.” In the hours before the bill passed, Doug Deason—a Texas financier and major Republican donor—said, “It’s just disappointing when you help put people in office, and they don’t do anything.”
Democrats are just as vulnerable to the demands of donors as Republicans. Consider the comments of eight-term Democratic U.S. Congressman Steve Israel, who decided not to run again. He said, “I don’t think I can spend another day…begging for money. I always knew the system was dysfunctional. Now it is beyond broken.”
Politicians are especially afraid of the the National Rifle Association, its four million members, and its well-funded opposition to any form of gun control.
Caught between the growing public pressure for action and the NRA’s resistance to change, gun control has become a “third rail” in American politics. Many politicians fear that even discussing gun control hurts them in their next election.
That’s why a national citizens’ assembly may be the best way to have a meaningful public conversation about gun violence, and the urgent need to prevent it.