I think we all agree that the people who won the gun control debate, at least this time, were the paranoid wing of the gun rights side.
I consider myself in the rational wing of the gun rights side, and I think I can defend this by pointing out that I've been saying for years that we've needed universal background checks, which is exactly what the unamended bill that was just yanked from the Senate would have established. If nothing else, UBCs would have given the BATF the best of all hammers to use against gun traffickers that supply the majority of firearms to street gangs. This, and not assault weapons, is the major firearms problem in the US, and it should have been addressed. For this reason, UBCs should have been a slam dunk.
Instead, they went down in flames.
What went wrong?
It's easy to blame the NRA - and maybe they should get the blame, since they're the ones who shifted the battle away from the AWB and toward background checks. But, to blame them for the atmosphere of paranoia that ended up dominating the debate is simplistic. One of the benefits of being a Genu-Wine Gun Geek is that I get a front row seat to the conversations that "gun nuts" have among themselves, and I can tell you that if the NRA hadn't led the way against background checks, the NRA board of directors would probably have lost their jobs. Either that, or they would become irrelevant as more strident groups - SAF, GOA, CCRKBA, JPFO, etc. - took over. I can also tell you that those "gun nuts" pay attention when legislators, or even bloggers like yourselves, say they want to take people's guns away. Such talk is, in fact, all they need to justify their paranoia. And why not?
I think leading the discussion with emotionally heated language was a huge tactical error. It kept the gun control side engaged, but it also helped to transform the gun rights side from a demoralized, disorganized mess into a pissed off, determined, organized mob. It turned the discussion from one of crafting sane solutions to real problems, into a cultural battle. While progressives can win most cultural battles, they're still losing this one, and will continue to do so.
I think putting Feinstein front and center was a gamble that backfired. Her AWB was draconian, and if the fight was held there, UBCs would have passed more easily. Simply put, the NRA calculated that AWB would never pass the House no matter what. Rather than making a show of fighting AWB and letting UBC pass, they made a fight out of UBC. Again, I think they did this to save themselves from a revolt on the right.
So, what now?
Now, the gun control side is promising to elect Democrats to replace the Republicans that opposed these bills. They are also promising to primary the Democrats who voted against Manchin-Toomey. The last few elections, however, have demonstrated that primary challenges are risky. Progressives primaried Lieberman, who won as an independent. They primaried Spector and ended up with Toomey. On the other hand, the Tea Party's primary wins gave the GOP such brilliant candidates as Sharon Angle, Christine O'Donnell, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, all of whom went on to symbolize everything that was wrong with the Republican Party. Occasionally primary challenges will produce a superstar, but more often than not, it costs one's party a seat.
I think the smarter strategy would be to re-think the desired outcomes. What are the specific problems? What are the specific, limited, balanced solutions to those problems? Can we craft these solutions in such a way that they don't unfairly restrict the liberties of gun owners? Then, focus on strategy and tactics. Can we sell these solutions without alienating the opposition? (It's going to be a hard sell, granted.)
Let's not kid ourselves - this is going to take years to accomplish. But, I'm reasonably optimistic that a balance can be stricken that preserves the rights of gun owners while sharply reducing the slaughter in our streets. It's going to have to start with both sides calming down, taking a deep breath, and making the decision to treat the other side as honest brokers, for once. And on that, I am a pessimist.