Ever since the pro-gun lobby helped defeat 20 Democrats who had voted to support an automatic weapons ban in the 1994 elections, swinging control of the House back to Republicans, it has been conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill that you don't go up against the gun lobby, without expecting a drubbing at the voting booth.
But the midterm votes on gun initiatives may augur a slowdown in a steady advance of gun rights and even set up potential showdowns between wayward gun owners who refuse to adhere to the new gun-control laws and police.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) both proved that American governors can sign major gun-control legislation and survive at the ballot box, testing the clout of gun owners and their lobbying arm, the National Rifle Association.
Moreover, the success of a Washington State referendum to close the so-called gun show loophole – that is, where private sales don’t require background checks – bolstered gun-control advocates like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who says that such populist victories could mark a major turning point in the national gun-rights debate.
“When Americans vote on public safety measures to prevent gun violence, gun safety wins,” said John Feinblatt, president of Mr. Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, in a statement. "The NRA might be able to intimidate Washington, D.C., and state legislators, but they don't intimidate American voters."
In some ways, gun politics were a marginal issue in Election 2014. In fact, fewer than 1 percent of likely voters said guns were the nation’s top issue, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll.
Still, the 2014 midterms marked the first time that NRA spending was matched, even exceeded, on the campaign trail, as wealthy Americans like Bloomberg and Bill Gates put more than $50 million into play to support pro-gun-control candidates and ballot initiatives. Gun-control groups alone spent $4 million in Washington State, where the NRA’s spending was marginal. The NRA spent a reported $35 million nationwide on the campaign trail in 2014.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told The Washington Times that the election marked “an overwhelming rejection” of gun-control candidates.
Yet, at least some of the gun-rights grass-roots activists saw the election as a warning knell.
Gun-related votes were a “mixed bag, but where it counted – Colorado, Connecticut, and Washington State – our side lost big-time,” says Mike Vanderboegh, a Second Amendment activist and former militia leader based in Alabama.
The affirmation of the Malloy administration in Connecticut, especially, says Mr. Vanderboegh, raises new questions about what the returning governor is planning to do about gun owners who fail to register their semiautomatic rifles and large magazines under a new law signed by Governor Malloy last year.
With Malloy back in office, “the noise that you’re hearing that’s drowning out GOP triumphalism is the ‘snick-snick’ of cleaning rods going through rifles,” Vanderboegh says.
The registry law has been met with widespread disdain, with an estimated 100,000 gun owners refusing to either register their weapons or ship them out of state.
Those gun owners, in a lawsuit by the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, argue that the law runs counter to the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which states that gun rights “shall not be infringed.” Some gun-rights groups have urged jury nullification as a method to protect gun owners who get into trouble for failing to register their arms. What gun-rights activists say is that there are potentially tens of thousands of gun owners who will refuse to register.
“If you haven’t declared it or registered it and you get caught ... you’ll be a felon,” Mike Lawlor, Malloy’s so-called “gun czar,” said last year. “People who disregard the law are, among other things, jeopardizing their right to own firearms. If you’re not a law-abiding citizen, you’re not a law-abiding citizen.”
The US Supreme Court has ruled in several recent cases that lawmakers can pass gun-control laws as long as they are in the interest of public safety and don’t curtail the basic right of law-abiding Americans to buy and keep firearms for self-defense.
Victories in Connecticut, Colorado, and Washington, gun-control groups say, show that statehouses now offer new hope for gun-control efforts, such as expanding background checks for gun buyers. During the past decade, statehouses widely expanded gun and armed self-defense rights.
To be sure, regional demographics will continue to loom large. Alabama voters, after all, approved on Tuesday a measure that reaffirms the right to bear arms and adds that “no international treaty or law shall prohibit, limit [or] otherwise interfere with a citizen’s fundamental right to bear arms.”
At the very least, the rise of gun control as a potential populist winner at the referendum level does suggest “the politics of gun control are evolving more than the longstanding pundit fatalism around the issue,” as Alec MacGillis wrote in the liberal-leaning New Republic in October.