President Trump’s election launched the strongest protest movement in modern American history, and that movement has taken on an unexpected target: the National Rifle Association.
Over the past week, organizers with the Women’s March on Washington have organized protests in Washington D.C. and Virginia. But the new demonstrations, which began by standing in defiance against an attack on protesters, is now entangled with arguments about gun control. The original statement about protecting First Amendment rights from an attack by the NRA is instead reverting back to an old debate about gun ownership, re-drawing battle lines in a culture war that could become politically dangerous to Democrats.
The new series of actions began in response to a controversial NRA ad that was considered by many to be a call to arms against protest movements like Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March on Washington.
“They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again… and then they use their ex-president to endorse the resistance,” conservative commentator Dana Loesch says in the ad. She then demands that Americans “fight this violence of lies with a clenched fist of truth.”
But since then, the message has gotten away from its original defence of the First Amendment, and has drifted for many protesters, organizers and pundits toward an anti-gun message.
The Women’s March launched the largest political protest in U.S. history a big tent movement. Though it was clearly inspired by anti-Trump sentiments, the march’s organizers were adamant about building a broad coalition to stand behind inalienable women’s issues, like access to health care, maternity leave, equal pay and safe work environments. But women don’t monolithically stand against gun ownership — 40% of women live in households that include gun owners, and a 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that 51% of women believe guns protect people from becoming victims of crime.
There is no question that gun violence is a terror nationwide for some of this country’s most vulnerable women. An analysis by pro-gun control organization Everytown for Gun Safety found that “more than half of all women killed by intimate partners in the U.S. are killed with guns.” And the march’s organizer’s are right to point out the NRA’s deep history of hypocrisies when it comes down to fighting for black gun owners like Philando Castille, who was killed by police during a routine traffic stop because the officer who killed him was afraid of his lawful possession of a weapon.
An analysis by the Guardian earlier this year mapped gun violence to the census tract level for the first time in U.S. history, showing that regardless of access to guns, violence more often maps to isolated pockets of extreme destitution. The authors of the article called called gun violence a “regressive tax that falls heaviest on neighborhoods already struggling with poverty, unemployment and failing schools.”
For all the root causes of gun violence, the history of gun control research has never conclusively shown evidence of progressive gun legislation working. Instead, gun control has had a measurable effect on the Democratic party: it loses them elections.
The history of Democrats jeopardizing elections on a gun control platform is long and well-documented. In 1994, President Bill Clinton marshaled Democrats around his infamous assault weapon ban. The effort is credited with alienating voters enough so that Republicans took back Congress in the midterm elections that year, ceding the House to Clinton’s opposition during the second half of his term.
Ten years later, the ban expired with little fanfare, as studies demonstrated that it had no conclusive effect on gun violence.
So now, under a federal government under Republican control, establishment Democrats are tempted to abandon gun control as a issue in order to take back Congress.
“Democratic operatives eager to expand the political map, and economic populists hungry to build a broad coalition, are tempted to jettison gun control all over again,” Politico wrote in May.
For all this talk of praxis, it may be too late. Even if the organizers wanted to keep to the First Amendment message — that the purpose of the new marches is to defend the First Amendment from a call to violence against protesters — the message has gotten away from them. Conservative news outlets are already using the march against the NRA as ammunition to draw battle lines in an age-old culture war.
Fox News, the Hill and more far-right news sources claim that the Women’s March movement no longer speaks on behalf of all women. They also say that Democrats are hypocrites for standing up for Castille’s gun rights while fighting for legislation that disproportionately hinders firearms access for the poor. On the other side of the culture war, liberal-leaning mainstream news outlets are calling it a “gun control” protest, and commenters on the Women’s March Facebook page are embroiled in flame wars about the Second Amendment.
“Upon reading your specific demands, I’m flabbergasted,“ one commenter wrote. ”They simply reinforce the noxious idea that people have a ‘right,’ enshrined in the Constitution, to carry concealed weapons. This is the very idea we should be challenging, not supporting.”
Establishment progressives who are often intra-left opponents — from Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer to Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — all gave their attention and loyalty to the Women’s March when the movement first began. And these Democrats face an oncoming, sustained battle for 2018 and beyond as they seek to broaden their base and reclaim territory lost to Republicans, especially in rural America.
At what cost are they willing to lose that battle?