Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.
God is all that the Republicans have left.
The reliable and lasting triangle of GOP wedge issues — “Gods, guns and gays” — is coming to pieces. Sodomy bans have fallen. So have prohibitions on same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples can get partner insurance benefits, adopt children and do other things they couldn’t do legally just a few years ago. That foundation stone of the culture wars has crumbled.
Now gun laws are wobbling in the wake of mass shootings that have cracked the long-standing alliance between elected Republicans and gun rights activists. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, one of the most conservative leadership voices in the Texas GOP, has broken faith with the National Rifle Association, among others, by saying it’s time to require background checks before “stranger-to-stranger” sales of firearms. His apostasy inflamed the most ardent Second Amendment proponents, but it reflects a new reality for the state’s Republican leaders: It’s time to do something about guns.
Patrick stole that political pie right off of Gov. Greg Abbott’s windowsill. After this summer’s mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa, the governor said he had had enough. “I have been to too many of these events,” he said. “I am heartbroken by the crying of the people of the state of Texas. I am tired of the dying of the people of the state of Texas. Too many Texans are in mourning, too many Texans have lost their lives.”
Abbott issued eight executive orders last week, calling on law enforcement to close information gaps and improve communications to tighten enforcement and to catch signs of impending trouble before shootings occur. He promised a package of legislative proposals would follow. Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, also a Republican, formed legislative committees on mass shootings to recommend new laws for the Legislature.
As they were unveiling those ideas, the Democrats were demanding that the governor call a special session to take up legislation those Democrats were unable to pass during the previous legislative session. The choice, for Republicans, was between doing nothing or doing what the Democrats wanted them to do.
That used to be an easy choice, and it’s why those wedge issues have worked as long and as well as they have. Mention any of them in a political context, and the listener’s ears perk up, waiting to see if the speaker is a friend or a foe. And as long as friend and foe remain well defined — one from this party, one from that party — any statement comes with a built-in set of allies.
But the definition has moved — rapidly — on LGBTQ rights and cultural acceptance. An acceptable political position from 25 years ago might be untenable for a current candidate. Lots of politicians have had to modify their positions over time — or to drop the subject and talk about other things instead.
Guns have, until now, remained a reliable divider of factions. The subject arises. Listeners snap to attention. Position, audience, boom! You’re with these politicians or against them.
The question, time after time, has been whether the latest mass killing is the one that will move those political fence lines, making what is now acceptable illegal or changing the way we view the possession, use and regulation of deadly weapons under the protective umbrella of the Second Amendment. The answer, again and again, has been no.
Maybe it’s this time.