President Donald Trump made his predictable retreat from conflict with the National Rifle Association this week. He had promised to take on the gun lobby amid loose talk of better background checks and an increase in the age limit for purchasing firearms. But, to no one's surprise, he quickly backed down, after a White House visit from the NRA.
Yes, once again, the familiar cycle of gun violence and promises of action yielded to capitulation. Yet this time something was different. Not in Washington, but in Florida, where last week gun-safety activists proved that they could out-muscle the NRA not just in blue states, or on the most extreme proposals in red states, but on central issues on the NRA's home court.
Florida Governor Rick Scott, a previously reliable devotee of the NRA, with an A+ rating from the group, signed legislation raising the age to purchase all firearms from 18 to 21. In addition, the law bans the sale and possession of bump stocks, which enable semi-automatic rifles to mimic automatic weapons. It imposes a three-day waiting period on most long-gun purchases. It establishes a red-flag process to empower local law-enforcement officials to petition a court to remove guns from an individual showing warning signs of violence.
Not everyone from the gun-regulation side recognized the seismic victory. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a Democratic candidate for governor, was disappointed that the legislature failed to pass an assault-weapons ban and universal background checks. He said the law "falls short of the public demands set by the majority of Floridians and the student survivors" of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas school.
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So it does, and in a rational world, Levine's disappointment would be justified. But gun politics is a function of raw power, not reason. The gun regulation forces have never lacked strong arguments. What they've lacked is a large number of people willing to invest their time and energy and votes in demanding safer regulation.
Florida, where students and activists bore down on the Legislature and last week won very real concessions, is the most powerful evidence that the cavalry may finally be saddling up.
The state is home to some of the most depraved, legally sanctioned gunplay in America. A breathtaking 2012 series by the Tampa Bay Times on the state's Stand Your Ground law depicted dozens of shootings in which the killer went free merely by claiming, in full accord with the law, that he felt "threatened" in some way before opening fire.
"One man killed two unarmed people and walked out of jail," the paper reported. "Another shot a man as he lay on the ground. Others went free after shooting their victims in the back. In nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim – and still went free."
It was in Florida that George Zimmerman gunned down Trayvon Martin in 2012 as the unarmed teenager was walking home. Zimmerman, who also allegedly threatened both his wife and girlfriend with a gun, walked free. Later, he listed for sale the weapon he used to kill Martin, a Kel-Tec PF-9 handgun. "I am honored and humbled to announce the sale of an American Firearm Icon," he wrote.
In Florida, the NRA has reigned supreme, and human life has been commensurately devalued. The sight of Republicans in Tallahassee turning on the gun lobby must've been quite a shock at NRA headquarters, which vigorously opposed the new law and has filed what appears to be a symbolic lawsuit against the age limit.
The NRA has weathered many previous threats, of course. The failure of Congress to correct even the most obvious and egregious flaw in U.S. gun regulation, the background check loophole, which enables pretty much anyone who wants to evade a background check to do so, has been the high-water mark of cynicism since even before the 2012 massacre of schoolchildren and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut.
That federal loophole has no legal, moral, civic, intellectual or other rationale. The NRA makes no argument in its behalf. The loophole exists simply because the NRA demands it.
The NRA's success depends on such displays of political dominance, not on the Second Amendment or legal arguments about its purview. As its aging, white, male membership grows more fearful in a changing nation, the group has come to view democratic debate as a losing proposition.
"We are locked in a struggle with powerful forces in this country who will do anything to destroy the Second Amendment," Richard Venola, a former editor of Guns & Ammo, told the New York Times in 2014. "The time for ceding some rational points is gone."
To get through a crisis, the NRA will feign interest in reforms. "If we want to prevent future atrocities, we must look for solutions that keep guns out of the hands of those who are a danger to themselves or others, while protecting the rights of law-abiding Americans," said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action.
But the NRA resolutely opposes any action to restrict convenient access to military-grade firepower by those who are a danger to themselves and others. The group has previously described red-flag laws to restrict access by such people as a "campaign of shame against gun owners."
While blue states continue to adopt an aggressive regime of gun regulation, in Washington and red states neither court-sanctioned restrictions on gun rights, nor the overwhelming evidence that more guns and fewer restrictions lead to more shootings, has been a match for the NRA. But in Florida last week, activists overpowered their nemesis.
The Florida law is far from a comprehensive attack on gun violence. But it's a key advance in its prerequisite: a comprehensive attack on the gun lobby.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.