The gun control issue in the 2022 elections in Kansas

Ernest Evans
Ernest Evans

From the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, the crime rate in the U.S. remained stable. Then, for a variety of reasons, violent crime began to go up in the late 1960s. In 1968, the nation saw the largest one-year increase in homicides ever recorded up to that time – 13%. The FBI began keeping national crime statistics in 1930.

This increase in crime put a new issue on the nation’s political agenda: gun control. Over the years since 1968, there have been some restrictions placed on the ownership of firearms. In 1968, it became illegal to buy handguns through the mail. In 1993, a 10-year ban on the sale of assault rifles was made law. And when you purchase a gun today, it is required that the person selling it to you do an instant background check with the Department of Justice.

But the more far-reaching restrictions on guns that much of the public wants have not been made law. The reason is simple. While clear majorities of the public favor such restrictions, those opposed to any further restrictions on guns are much better organized than the pro-gun control forces. Most critically of all, people opposed to further restrictions on gun rights are much more likely to vote solely on that issue than are the people in favor of restricting gun rights.

In early 2018, it seemed that the gridlock over gun control was going to be broken. In February 2018, there was a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed. There had been calls for greater gun restrictions after earlier school shootings, but this time the response was different. Specifically, lots of young students began marching and lobbying for further gun restrictions. In March 2018, there were demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and around the country that were attended by a couple  million young people.

It is a basic fact about successful social movements that these movements have a much greater chance of success if they involve those who will most directly benefit from the proposed social changes. For example, after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, the great Black abolitionist Frederick Douglas successfully lobbied Lincoln to start forming regiments of Black soldiers. Douglas was correct in his assessment that by mobilizing those people who would most benefit from the end of slavery, the cause of the North would be greatly strengthened. These Black troops were an essential part of the final Union victory. So, the active involvement of millions of young people in the gun control movement after the Parkland shootings greatly strengthened the cause of placing new restrictions on guns.

And this heightened public support for gun control played out here in Kansas. In the 2018 gubernatorial race, GOP contender Mr. Kris Kobach was an outspoken defender of gun rights. The most memorial image from that campaign was Mr. Kobach campaigning in a jeep with a paper mache machine gun in the back seat. While there were a number of reasons Mr. Kobach lost to Democrat Laura Kelly in that race, his stance on gun rights definitely contributed to his loss.

However, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson used to say, “A week is a long time in politics, and a year is an eternity.” Certain recent events have changed U.S. public opinion on gun rights, and that fact will be an important thing to remember in predicting the 2022 elections in Kansas.

The tragic death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, shocked the nation, and led to widespread criticism of law enforcement. Faced with this firestorm of criticism, the number of police officers retiring went up sharply and applications to police academies declined sharply. Most of the nation’s police departments were already short of officers at the time of Mr. Floyd’s death – now they became massively understrength. This shortage of officers also spilled over into civilian support personnel – many departments became unable to recruit enough 911 operators.

These severe personnel shortages began to seriously degrade the ability of local police forces to respond to crime. In the city of Detroit, the average response time to 911 calls is 58 minutes.

With the police being less capable of responding to crime, a lot of ordinary citizens began buying guns – many for the first time. The statistics from the Department of Justice show that in the time period since Mr. Floyd’s death, there has been a record number of new gun owners.

As the state of Kansas moves closer to the 2022 elections, it looks very much right now that with a large number of new gun owners in the state, the electoral prospects of those candidates supporting gun rights will be considerably improved over what they were in 2018.

Ernest Evans is a Leavenworth Times columnist.