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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Is Gun Control Still “Third Rail” for Dems?

Dorothy Samuels challenges Democrats to rethink a destructive misconception in her New York Times opinion piece, “The Deadly Myth of Gun Control in Electoral Politics.” Samuels argues, in essence, that an election 15 years ago has all but paralyzed today’s Democrats from addressing one of the most important public safety issues.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama tossed cold water a few weeks back on Attorney General Eric Holder’s well-founded enthusiasm for reviving the assault weapons ban that Congress and the Bush White House let expire in 2004. I was struck by a common thread in the responses I heard:Enactment of the original 1994 assault weapons ban cost Democrats control of Congress.
…The notion that gun control was responsible for the Democrats’ debacle 15 years ago was floated by Richard Gephardt, the former Democratic House leader, and other pols and commentators after the ’94 election. But it was Bill Clinton who gave it current credence. “The N.R.A. could rightly claim to have made Gingrich the House speaker,” Mr. Clinton wrote in his 2004 autobiography, pumping up the gun lobby and, not incidentally, himself by attributing the body blow to his party to his principled leadership on guns.

Samuels argues that “other major factors in the Democrats’ 1994 loss, starting with perceived Democratic arrogance and corruption” had more to do with the Dems being routed in that year. She points out that Bill Nelson, a strong gun control advocate was elected to the Senate in FL, despite NRA support for his opponent. She also cites,

…voter unhappiness with Mr. Clinton’s budget, his health care fiasco, the Republican Party’s success in recruiting appealing candidates, and that ingenious Republican vehicle for nationalizing the elections known as the “Contract With America.” The contract, by the way, did not mention guns.

Samuels points out that Clinton did well enough in 1996, trumpeting “his role in enacting the assault weapons ban and the ’93 Brady law requiring background checks for gun buyers” and she notes also the prime time speaking slots for James and Sarah Brady at the Democratic Convention in that year She also cites “the stunning defeat four years later, in 2000, of prominent Republican senators running with strong N.R.A. backing” (John Ashcroft in MO, Spencer Abraham in MI, Slade Gorton in WA), noted in Dennis Henigan’s book, “Lethal Logic.” She concludes:

Today, there’s ample reassurance for the Democratic Congress and White House in the N.R.A.’s unsuccessful crusade against Barack Obama in 2008, and the poor showing of its favored House and Senate candidates against hopefuls running with backing from the pro-gun-control Brady Campaign. Yet, the gun lobby’s exaggerated ’94 triumph continues to haunt the nation’s capital, inflating the N.R.A.’s clout and Democratic cowardice on gun violence.

Samuels makes a pretty good case that a 15-year old myth has empowered the gun lobby beyond all reason. Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed has argued in an interesting Slate article that the key to passing meaningful gun control reforms is to link it to crime control:

The political case for not running for cover on guns is equally straightforward. Unlike most politicians, voters are not ideological about crime. They don’t care what it takes, they just want it to go down. The Brady Bill and the clip ban passed because the most influential gun owners in America—police officers and sheriffs—were tired of being outgunned by drug lords, madmen, and thugs.
When Democrats ignore the gun issue, they think about the political bullet they’re dodging but not about the opportunity they’ll miss. In the 1980s, Republicans talked tough on crime and ran ads about Willie Horton but sat on their hands while the crime rate went up. When Bill Clinton promised to try everything to fight crime—with more police officers on the street, and fewer guns—police organizations dropped their support for the GOP and stood behind him instead.

I’m also wondering if the widespread use of the catch-all term “gun control” is a big part of the problem. The American public clearly supports specific measures like a ban on the sale of assault weapons, reasonable waiting periods before gun purchase etc. Polls taken as recently as April indicate that a healthy majority of respondents favor a ban on the sale of assault weapons and tougher restrictions on handgun sales. But the majority shrinks, when the term “stricter gun control laws” is used. Why use the adversary’s terminology in debates, and call it “gun control”? Dems should always challenge the use of such a broad term to obscure specific reforms, and call out the gun lobby for their distortions.
“Gun control” has often been called the “third rail” of American politics in recent years. Certainly, Samuels is right that a 15-year old myth should not be allowed to prevent life-saving reforms — and safer communities for all Americans.

2 comments on “Is Gun Control Still “Third Rail” for Dems?

  1. joeff on

    So, where are the big police organizations on this? After Columbine? After Virginia Tech? After the guy in Pittsburgh and others that were explicitly political? After Oakland? I was there between the shootings and the funerals, and the city came to a halt. Tens of thousands of police attended the funeral, which was held in an arena.
    If their members are getting outgunned, they ought to be front and center on this. That’s the only way the NRA can be beaten.

  2. Colin Rogero on

    The problem with this statement is a gross misconception about the “power” of the NRA.
    If one considers the spike in gun sales, and ammo – it is almost natural to assume that the concern is valid, and exists, and is still a powerful issue.
    The NRA has added close to one million additional members since the election of Barack Obama, and they are not taking their previous loss lightly.
    The board includes such names as Grover Norquist, and the five key note speakers at their upcoming event include Gingrich, and Palin.


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