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Mass shootings show ‘Stein’s Law’ has sadly met its match

Supreme Court, federal judges have expanded gun rights too broadly

Demonstrators gather outside the Capitol to demand action on gun safety on May 26, 2022, in the wake of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Texas.
Demonstrators gather outside the Capitol to demand action on gun safety on May 26, 2022, in the wake of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Texas. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In the 1980s, the witty conservative economist Herb Stein, who headed the Council of Economic Advisers under Richard Nixon, formulated what has become known as Stein’s Law.

Designed to cock a skeptical eye at all apocalyptic predictions, he declared, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

I have always interpreted those simple, yet deceptively smart, words to mean that either an alarming trend line would slow down or else society and the government would act to prevent the predicted dire outcomes.

Stein’s Law is why I have never taken too seriously the doomsayers who, at times, have forecast that America’s rate of inflation would rival that of Weimar Germany, Social Security would be bankrupt by now or Times Square soon would be underwater from rising sea levels.

But now I have sadly concluded that Stein’s Law has met its match. School shootings will go on forever in armed-to-the-teeth America — and nothing will make the horrors stop.

My sense of fatalism is different from that of three-term Tennessee Rep. Tim Burchett, who responded to a question about the Nashville school murders by saying bluntly, “It’s a horrible, horrible situation. And we’re not gonna fix it.”

Burchett, a proud lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, has convinced himself that murdered 9-year-olds are an unalterable fact of life, like rainy days and traffic jams. Burchett went on to explain in the interview that any possible action by Congress would only “mess things up.”

This, of course, is nonsense. How do you “mess things up” in a nation that has endured 130 mass shootings in the first three months of 2023, according to calculations by the Gun Violence Archive?

What leaves me feeling defeated is the unchanging reality that any far-reaching gun legislation would not survive a Senate filibuster (thank you, Mitch McConnell).

And if somehow it did, the right-wing Supreme Court would find it an unconstitutional violation of the pistol-packing Second Amendment.

We have reached the limits of tear-stained rhetoric.

After 20 first graders died a decade ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School, words provided scant balm amid the grief. And, in an age of active shooter drills in kindergarten, things have only gotten worse as the constant expressions of heartbreak have become formulaic.

In advocating for an assault weapons ban — fully recognizing the futility of his words — President Joe Biden said Tuesday that “Congress has to act. The majority of the American people think having assault weapons is bizarre, a crazy idea. They’re against that.”

But, somehow, democracy and public opinion invariably fail when it comes to guns. And it is worth trying to understand why.

Not too long ago, the glib answer from gun-control advocates was that the Republican Party had sold its soul for NRA campaign contributions. It was the gun-lobby version of the Watergate dictum “Follow the money.”

Then the NRA, faced with declining revenues and accusations of mismanagement, teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. As a result, the NRA was forced to slash its political spending to just $16 million in the 2022 campaign cycle.

Yet the Republican Party remains yoked to the most extreme nut-case positions of the NRA. For example, how does claiming the right to openly carry handguns on public streets relate to hunting for sport or upholding freedom?

Another common theory is that Republicans resist any restrictions on gun ownership because liberals disdain the culture of red-state America. Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign reflected this arrogant worldview when he said about working-class voters on the eve of the Pennsylvania primary, “They get bitter. They cling to guns or religion.”

The problem with this approach is that these days everything has become cultural. When getting vaccinated or opposing book bans in libraries becomes a marker in the culture wars, it is hard to attribute too much influence to the “cling to guns” argument.

Let me propose another explanation for GOP’s fanaticism on the gun issue. Everyone in Congress knows that, because of the Supreme Court’s expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment, any possible gun legislation will only work at the margins.

With an estimated 400 million guns already floating around America, enhanced background checks or even an assault weapons ban will not prevent most school shootings.

Of course, reducing deaths from gun violence by 10 percent or 20 percent would be a laudable step forward. But we would still have to emotionally endure many of the tragedies like those at Sandy Hook Elementary, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and in Uvalde, Texas.

Since even an assault weapons ban would be only a partial solution, it is much easier for congressional Republicans to convince themselves that voting for it would not be worth the political risk.

The answer, to the degree that one exists, should not be apathy. Rather, it is realizing that the real enemy is the Supreme Court and the federal judges who have expanded gun rights so broadly that tough, effective legislation would be deemed unconstitutional.

Although they are dramatically different causes, there are lessons to be absorbed from the anti-abortion movement. Stymied by a seemingly ironclad Supreme Court opinion in Roe v. Wade, abortion foes had to struggle for a half-century to overturn it.

For the sake of our schoolchildren, I hope and pray that it will not take five long decades for the federal courts to come to their senses on guns.

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