By meeting’s end, it occurred to me that what I had witnessed was a microcosm of the new gun politics. There were only five protesters, but because of their belligerence, they had nearly captured the entire discussion. Manchin, however, had realized that there were a lot of people there who weren’t shouting at him—and when he persisted, it turned out that many of them agreed with him. After all, polls had found a vast majority of West Virginians supported his proposal. If he could pull this off in West Virginia, surely his colleagues could manage it in New Hampshire or Montana.
Perhaps -- but my gut feeling remains pessimistic. Gun politics in the U.S. depends on a balance of distrust. If there's been a genuine cause for optimism over the past year, it would be an emerging consensus that Americans don't trust the gun lobby and its constituents. To the extent that the majority has looked at the people at pro-gun rallies and decided, "That's not us!" there's been progress toward reform. To the extent that they no longer trust the stereotypical gun nut not to open fire on them some day, either in a fit of insanity or as some act of political protest -- or both -- there's been progress toward reform. But distrust of government remains real, and the past month's scandals have probably given many people more cause to distrust government. We can protest objectively that people shouldn't distrust a democratic or democratically elected government, but no matter how democratic the U.S. is, most people don't wear uniforms and fewer can give commands, and to them government will always be someone else who can do something to them as well as for them. If the gun-control debate is a zero-sum game in which people assume that less guns (or less ammo) for individuals only means more power (and more potential for abuse) for government, those people will probably side with the side they distrust less. Random events can make a difference. More scandals will heighten distrust of government; more mass shootings will heighten distrust of gun nuts and their apologists. If we're at a turning point now, it may be because many people trust neither the government nor the gun lobby sufficiently to take a definite stand with one or the other. If someone can find a way to make people see gun control a matter of empowering themselves, rather than giving the state more power to oppress them or gun nuts more freedom to kill them, then the NRA's days as a power in the land might actually be numbered.