Faced with the Newtown tragedy, President Obama has sought to make gun control a signature issue at the outset of his second term. Within and outside of Congress, the topic is one closely intertwined with technology and the advent of online advocacy.
First, there is Vice President Joe Biden, the President’s go-to guy on the fiscal cliff, redeployed in January to rapidly consult stakeholders and craft proposals in concert with legislators. Whatever common ground emerges is owed to the convergence and cooperation of moderates in both parties, themselves prodded by shifting public opinion in the wake of the mass killing of young children.
Forging such compromise is the stuff of traditional politics: closed-door meetings and Congressional hearings amplified by television media.
Online, a new layering of activity has also emerged and begun to exert influence. There is familiar and even amplified divisiveness: the NRA, for example, published videos attacking the Obama administration and, frighteningly, even invoking the Obama children. Yet there are also attempts by the White House to gauge opinions in novel ways via social media, and to shape the public conversation accordingly.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with leveraging this online space lies in the fleetingness of reactions in response to crises and incidents of one sort or another. As Newtown recedes from media headlines, so too does the urgency of the pressures on lawmakers to act. Moreover, there is no formal apparatus to tie together online dialogue and the formalities of Congress.
Money thus becomes a central proxy. Most prominently, the NRA’s influence in legislative races at all levels across the country stems from member donations and mobilization between and especially during elections. On the other side, Arizona Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords’ new entity is also aiming to raise resources, and groups such as One Million Mothers for Gun Control have devised innovative grassroots and online campaigns.
Yet such bilateral action may well reinforce gridlock, especially in a country with an inherent suspicion toward government. Exit polls during President Obama’s re-election, for instance, revealed more than half of voters view the state as over-extended. And while Newtown provided wind in the sails of gun control advocates, it also brought alarm to many voters fearful of government overreach (prompting the President to claim that he frequently enjoys skeet shooting at Camp David – prompting, in turn, the White House to then tweet photo evidence in light of widespread skepticism).
Gun control has also entailed administrative governance challenges, as demonstrated in this country all too well. The scrapping of Canada’s gun registry is owed in part to a shift in political ideology, but also an all-too-familiar boggling of an IT project. Such pitfalls have long been recognized by the OECD as the “hidden threat” to e-government and it similarly stokes fears in the U.S. in terms of the American government’s ability to better track gun ownership and how such data would and could be used. Likeminded discussions of an electronic registry for mental illness, for example, are quickly cast in Orwellian terms.
Web 2.0 has also brought novel forms of action and new controversy. Deploying the principles underpinning open data initiatives, one local American newspaper gathered publicly searchable records and created an online and searchable mapping of households with registered firearms. The outrage that ensued led to its dismantling, but the episode is suggestive of how new forms of transparency and collective action may shape this debate in the future.
And the future is likely to include guns. Even prior to Newtown, media reports had circulated about the widening concerns of law enforcement agencies pertaining to three dimensional printers, small appliances that can quickly assemble tangible items (making use of readily available recipes online, for instance). The television show that first ventured into Second Life to solve a case, CSI New York, recently featured such a device. Perhaps appropriately given the newness of this technology, the gun eventually misfired thereby harming the perpetrator.
But technology is anything but static, and this ominous form of “do-it-yourself” weaponry seems destined to materialize – literally and figuratively, no pun intended.
Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).