We were working on an anti-sex offender bill, many years ago when I was a Senate staffer. One of the demands we heard for our “get tough” legislation was that there should be mandatory minimums for child sex offenders. If someone harmed a child, they should spend at least 20 years in jail.  

But.

In the course of our research, we learned that mandatory minimums backfired. If the smallest penalty for a verdict was 20 years, accused offenders have no incentive to plea bargain. So, more cases went to trial, prosecutors got fewer convictions, and offenders were walking away. When you give someone no room to negotiate, they don’t negotiate.

The recent push on gun control has reminded me of this.

The Parkland shooting has spurred a media maelstrom the likes of which we haven’t seen, not even after Columbine. The ingredients creating this storm are 1) this is a legitimate tragedy and people are rightly upset, 2) the demand for outrage on social media, 3) the modern “protest because it’s Thursday” culture, and 4) media boredom with #MeToo (for now).

There’s also a sense among gun control advocates that NOW we can FINALLY make a change, and that just a little more rancor can make things happens.

Here’s why this has never worked before.  

When gun control advocates go so far as to cry, “Repeal the 2nd Amendment!” or even farther with “No guns in this world!” or as extreme as “Confiscate all guns!”, they put law-abiding gun owners in a situation where they have to fight back. They’re terrified of losing their rights and property, so they flood the NRA with donations, and the NRA comes back stronger than ever.

The efforts to “get tough” backfire because when you give someone no room to negotiate, they don’t negotiate.

Gun control advocates would be far more effective if they insisted on something as mild as, “It should be at least as difficult to own a weapon as it is to own a car.” That’s a reasonable statement, I think most people could get on board with that.

(Fun fact: drunk driving kills 10,500 people a year; mass shootings kill 475 (2016 data). Should we make alcohol illegal … again?)

Furthermore, if there are ways to monetize gun safety – training programs, safes, etc. – then the NRA will actually get on board. Any substantive change in gun laws will require the buy-in of gun owners, and control advocates won’t get that by demonizing them.

But that’s not fun.

People like to vilifying the opposition rather than working with them. Moderate, reasonable olive branches don’t make for good Tweets or protest signs. It’s more gratifying to say “Confiscate all guns!” than it is to say “We don’t want to repeal the 2nd Amendment, but we want to make these three simple changes that could have prevented this tragedy or others like it.”

One change that – somehow – had gotten missed in so much of this anti-NRA maelstrom is the headline that the FBI knew that the Parkland shooter was a threat but did not act. We can pass all the laws we want, but they won’t make a difference if law enforcement isn’t … enforcing. My hunch is if some vigilant members of the NRA had gotten this same tip, they would have responded to the warning.

Now some may disagree with my entire premise – that the NRA, its followers, and their money are symptomatic of a larger problem with our democracy: that wealth buys a voice and voices get influence. That reality is easy to decry when it benefits someone you disagree with, but we’re OK with it when it helps our side. Our friends at The Salt Lake Tribune may shake their fists that the NRA’s wealth gives gun owners such a loud voice … but I think the Trib is probably OK that the Huntsman family’s wealth has given The Trib a voice.

The overwhelming majority of gun owners are not violent criminals. If they were, we wouldn’t be having the (relatively) civil discussion we’re having. But as gun control advocates threaten increasingly less civil measures, I have to wonder how a group that defines itself by rejecting guns possibly hopes to overwhelm a group that defines itself by owning guns.