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.

Matt York/AP
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.

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

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.”

Others voice similar views. “Why people fear the NRA is something we’re having an extremely hard time getting our hands around. Frankly, we’re baffled,” says Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in Washington.

What President Clinton said

Historically, Democrats’ fears are based on the words of none other than President Clinton, who wrote in his autobiography that pro-gun-control stances cost Democrats the House in 1994 and the presidency in 2000. In that presidential election, Al Gore lost Tennessee, Arkansas, and West Virginia – states that could have made up for his eventual loss in Florida.

Critics say that this is a simplistic view and that the NRA was rebuffed on several fronts in those elections. “The gun lobby’s exaggerated ’94 triumph continues to haunt the nation’s capital, inflating the NRA’s clout and Democratic cowardice on gun violence," writes Dorothy Samuels in a recent New York Times “Editorial Observer” column.

But Democrats have largely taken Mr. Clinton at his word, and for good reason, many politicians argue. Mr. Gore’s campaign boss in West Virginia told the Cook Political Report that there were four reasons for his defeat: “Guns, guns, guns, and a robo-call machine that was incorrectly programmed to make calls at 3 a.m.”

But last year’s elections – which included victories in the Senate for pro-gun Democrats Mark Warner of Virginia and Kay Hagan of North Carolina – may hint at the cultural rather than political aspects of the gun debate. Indeed, views on guns do not separate neatly between Republicans and Democrats.

About 33 percent of liberal households own guns, compared with 47 percent of conservative households – a gap that doesn't make a big difference, says Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor who writes often about gun laws.

“It’s not at all surprising that even in a Democrat-controlled Congress, gun control would be blocked and gun rights proposals would be enacted, because it’s not just a Democrat and Republican issue,” but a cultural one, Mr. Volokh says.

Last year's Supreme Court decision

What’s more, both political and public mind-sets were jarred by last year’s Heller decision at the Supreme Court, which confirmed for the first time since 1791 the right of individuals to own and bear arms. That affirmation created a sea change in the body politic, says Robert Levy, a senior fellow and chairman at the Cato Institute in Washington and a co-counsel in the Heller case.

“In fact, gun control is likely to continue, post-Heller, to be a losing issue politically [for Democrats] and red meat for the Republicans,” says Mr. Levy.

At the end of the day, Democrats simply aren’t going to risk their majority over this issue – at least not yet, experts say.

“The price Democrats had to pay to make their majority was to welcome a number of members of rural districts into their ranks,” says Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. “The issue of guns to most Democrats is a molehill compared to the mountain of healthcare and climate change.”

Yet some notable Democrats have made statements this spring promising to curtail gun rights. Those individuals include Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.

The tensions between some Democrats are apparent. Take two New York lawmakers: Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband, Dennis, was killed in a mass shooting on a Long Island commuter train in 1993, and recently appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whose record is largely pro-gun. Representative McCarthy has vowed to defeat Senator Gillibrand in the next election if she doesn’t shift her stance.

In fact, 27 Democrats in the Senate voted in favor of the amendment to the credit-card bill that expands gun rights in national parks. Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, who offered the amendment, told Congressional Quarterly that it was “not going to be a piece of cake” for Democrats to forestall GOP amendments – particularly, as CQ wrote, “on issues, such as guns, that divide the Democratic Caucus."

What could be ahead

Given their recent successes, Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats, and the NRA will probably continue to push for more gun rights expansion, many experts believe. One possibility: attaching to a bill a concealed-carry measure for college campuses.

Whether that will play to the Democrats’ favor if they oppose it, or whether it will, in essence, flush vulnerable rural Democrats into the open to target in the next election will be the big question.

“The NRA and gun rights folks will keep pushing as long as there’s give in the process,” says Philip Cook, a Duke economist and co-author of “Gun Violence: The Real Costs.” “They’ll be demanding airline passengers and elementary school teachers be allowed to carry guns. At some point, the Democrats are going to have to take a stand.”

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