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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Gun Control a Daunting, Not Hopeless Prospect

Nate Silver has an insightful post, “Did Democrats Give Up in the Gun Control Debate?” up at The New York Times. SIlver explores public attitudes toward gun control measures in light of the history of gun control in America and violent crime rates. Silver doesn’t reach any firm conclusions about future prospects for gun control, other than saying ambivalence among Democrats has given the NRA free reign. But his analysis of public opinion is a good read, especially for gun control advocates in their search for a workable strategy. As Silver expalins,

…According to the General Social Survey, conducted intermittently since 1972, the percentage of Americans who think permits should be required before a gun can be obtained has gradually risen (to 79 percent in 2008 from 72 percent in 1972). Background checks for gun owners are overwhelmingly popular, attracting the support of as many as 90 percent of Americans. And while most Americans say they do not want gun control regulations to become stricter, even fewer — about 10 percent — think they should be made more lax.
Still, the overall pattern is reasonably clear. According to Gallup surveys, for instance, the number of Americans favoring a ban on handguns has been on a long-term decline and is now about 30 percent, down almost 10 percentage points from a decade earlier…

Silver then looks at attitudes in light of gun ownership:

…This has occurred despite gun ownership becoming less common. When the General Social Survey was first conducted in 1973, about half (49 percent) of Americans reported having a firearm in their households. But the fraction was down to 36 percent by 2008

And crime rates:

…it is hard to track any sort of one-to-one relationship between crime rates and public opinion on guns. The rate of violent crime increased steadily in the United States for most of the past half-century, peaking in 1991, before embarking upon a relatively steep decline. But support for gun rights generally increased both as the crime rate was rising and then after it began to fall.

Silver discusses the evolution of the gun control policies of the political parties, noting the hardening of GOP opposition to any form of gun control and the weakening of Democratic support, until the election of President Clinton, when the bold language of the Democratic Party Platform of 1996 put it this way:

Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, and George Bush were able to hold the Brady Bill hostage for the gun lobby until Bill Clinton became President. With his leadership, we made the Brady Bill the law of the land. And because we did, more than 60,000 felons, fugitives, and stalkers have been stopped from buying guns. President Clinton led the fight to ban 19 deadly assault weapons, designed for one purpose only — to kill human beings. We oppose efforts to restrict weapons used for legitimate sporting purposes, and we are proud that not one hunter or sportsman was forced to change guns because of the assault weapons ban. But we know that the military-style guns we banned have no place on America’s streets, and we are proud of the courageous Democrats who defied the gun lobby and sacrificed their seats in Congress to make America safer.

After this high water mark of Democratic support for gun control, the Democratic platforms of ’04 and ’08 barely mentioned the issue. “Democrats concluded that the issue was a political loser for them and they stopped fighting back,” as SIlver puts it.
After Tucson, Democrats are at a crossroads where they must decide whether or not it is OK to ignore the fact that high capacity ammo clips serve no other purpose, other than killing lots of people. Silver presents no poll data about attitudes toward banning the sale of high capacity ammo clips, which has been proposed in legislation by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy. It’s highly unlikely that Speaker Boehner and the Republicans will allow the life-saving legislation to move forward in the House.
Progressives and activists should not give up on McCarthy’s bill. As America prepares to celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, I remember how the holiday legislation languished in congress for more than a decade before it got any traction. Then, sparked by a well-organized citizens lobby launched in 1979, the bill rolled through congress like a well-oiled juggernaut, compelling even a reluctant Ronald Reagan to sign it in 1983. The two relevant points here are that attitudes can be changed, and worthwhile reforms sometimes take a few years. Activists should refuse to be demoralized by defeats in the short run, while mobilizing for victory in the long run. That’s how meaningful gun control to save lives will come to America.

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