04/29/2013 10:36 am ET Updated Jun 29, 2013

Learning From the Gun Control Loss

For advocates of greater gun control, the failure of recent legislation to strengthen background checks and to ban certain types of assault rifles and high capacity magazines came as a cruel, if not wholly unexpected, defeat. After all, in a Gallup poll shortly before the Senate vote, 58 percent of Americans said that "the laws governing the sale of firearms should be made more strict." After Newtown, after Virginia Tech, after Columbine, how could people object to what seemed to be reasonable restrictions?

The answer to this question has taken many forms. The NRA emerged as the chief villain, charged with fear-mongering and lying ("the government is going to seize your guns"). Other villains have not been hard to find: Senators "bought and paid for" by the NRA or fearful of losing its election-year support; ordinary Americans who "mistakenly" believe that the proposed legislation was a violation of their Second Amendment rights; and a gun industry who sees gun control as profit control.

But, as Captain Renault realized at the end of the film Casablanca, "round up the usual suspects" is more a diversion than a solution to the problem at hand. While success at gun control may require dealing with the "usual suspects," it will require something more.

That 58 percent figure offers a clue, because in 1990, it was 78 percent of Americans who felt that the laws governing the sale of firearms should be more strict. And that was before Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Newtown.

In 1959, 60 percent of Americans, according to Gallup, said that there should be "a law that bans the possession of hand guns, except by the police and other authorized persons." That figure, at the end of 2012, was 24 percent. In short, over the last fifty years, support for gun control -- at least as measured by polls -- has gone down not up.

Interestingly, distrust in the federal government has followed a similar trajectory. In 1964, 76 percent of Americans trusted the government in Washington "to do the right thing almost always or most of the time." In 2011, that figure was 15 percent.

While there is never a simple or single explanation for any political result, it seems worth asking if one of the reasons gun control lost in the Senate is because many Americans -- especially in "red" states -- just don't trust the federal government. Since Vietnam in 1965, followed by Watergate in 1974, the Reagan Revolution ("government is the problem") in 1980, endless media and interest group criticism, and highly public government failures (not nearly as public as its successes) such as the hostage taking in Iran, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the financial meltdown and Great Recession -- the feeling that when Washington acts, society suffers is shared by many.

One logical conclusion of this line of thinking is that meaningful gun control is not likely until more Americans trust their government -- to protect them (from crime), to protect their rights, and to act in their best interests. Advocates of gun control need to talk not just about gun violence but about trusting government. There may not be enough support for controlling guns until more people are convinced that their government is under control.

Advocates of gun control might ponder this as they chart their strategy to legislative victory. Even if they had gotten all they wanted out of the Senate; even if the House had (almost inconceivably) approved the bill as well, the law signed by the President would have by no means met all of its advocates' desires on this issue. As long as there is so much distrust of the federal government, it never will.