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Why Democrats relent on gun issues

They’ve allowed concealed-carry weapons in national parks, considered easing gun restrictions in the District of Columbia, and turned back a campaign pledge on gun-record transparency.

By Staff writer / May 28, 2009

The latest firearms were on display at the National Rifle Association's convention in Phoenix earlier this month. Democrats were poised after last year’s election to push back against the National Rifle Association’s heavy firepower, but instead they've conceded ground on gun issues.

Matt York/AP

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Atlanta

Democrats are looking down the barrel of a gun as they vie to keep their power in Washington.

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Poised after last year’s election to push back against the National Rifle Association’s heavy firepower, the Democrats have in rapid order conceded ground on the gun issue. They’ve allowed concealed-carry weapons in national parks, considered easing gun restrictions in the District of Columbia, and turned back a campaign pledge on gun-record transparency.

The moves, which tended to be riders to other bills, have given Republicans a rare sense of success as a minority. They also have the potential to force some Democrats in rural states “into the cross hairs” for the next election cycle by daring them to clarify their views on gun control.

For Democrats, reluctance to take on the gun lobby is tied to a desire to hold onto their majority in Washington as they pursue a progressive agenda on issues ranging from the economy to healthcare.

“What we’re seeing is a steady expansion of gun rights [nationally], and it’s purely the result of the collapse and disappearance of the Democratic Party on the issue,” says New York University criminologist James Jacobs, author of “Can Gun Control Work?”

That’s hardly how the Democrats were portrayed at the recent NRA convention in Phoenix. There, fiery speeches about a slick and aggressive White House ready to yank guns out of Americans’ closets carried the day.

The 2008 election

If anything, however, Democrats as a whole have been shifting a bit toward the right on gun issues. Last November saw the election of 26 new Democratic House members and seven new Democratic senators – many of them from rural areas and with pro-gun stances on their records.

Since then, the shift has become more apparent. Up against a Memorial Day deadline, Democrats agreed to expand gun rights in national parks as part of the credit-card reform bill. Democrats also agreed to ease gun restrictions in Washington as part of the historic District of Columbia voting rights bill. That measure passed in the Senate but is stalled in the House.

In addition, President Obama broke a campaign pledge by largely refusing to open up to law-enforcement officials records about firearms sales that are kept by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

These moves come even as the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence says that the NRA is on the ropes: Brady-sponsored candidates beat out NRA-sponsored candidates in 10 out of 10 Senate races last year.

“The election of Barack Obama and other supporters of common sense gun laws, and the defeat of many NRA candidates, proves – again – that politicians do not risk electoral defeat if they cross the gun lobby,” says a recent Brady Center report, “Guns & the 2008 Elections.”