As party shifts left, Democrats show new unity on guns

Why We Wrote This

For the first time in more than 20 years, major gun control legislation passed the House. It's because Democrats are in control – but also because of a shift within the party.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Shooting survivor and former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D) of Arizona (r.) embraces student activist Audrey Wright of Chicago during a news conference about legislation requiring universal background checks for gun purchases, on Capitol Hill on Feb. 26. The legislation passed the House but faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

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Newly elected Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D) of Virginia used to carry a gun every day. A former law enforcement officer – and the first Democrat to represent her district in nearly 50 years – she says not all of her constituents agree with her support for universal background checks for gun purchases. But many do. “This is ensuring that that same standard, not a shifting standard, is applied to all firearms purchases,” she says.

With support from moderate Democrats like Representative Spanberger, the House this week passed the first significant gun control measure in more than two decades, extending required background checks to gun shows and the internet – closing the “gun-show loophole.”

While the bill faces an uphill climb in the Senate, it underscores the evolution of gun control in Washington since its heyday in the early 1990s, when President Bill Clinton signed a ban on assault weapons and a background check law that only applied to federally licensed dealers. Back then, many rural and Southern Democrats voted against both measures, and the party went on to pay a stiff price at the ballot box. Today, however, Democrats appear emboldened – and unified.

When the House passed a universal background check bill for guns on Wednesday, newly empowered Democrats broke into applause. Cheers and whistles ricocheted through the chamber, and guests in the visitors’ gallery shouted “thank you!”

The outburst prompted the speaker pro tempore to read a warning that any manifestation of approval or disapproval is a violation of House rules – though in an aside, she admitted “that hurt my heart to say that.”

The emotional eruption was understandable. For the first time in more than two decades, the House has passed significant legislation regulating the purchase of firearms by extending required background checks to gun shows and the internet – closing the “gun-show loophole.” It was a bipartisan bill, but largely a party-line vote, with only eight Republicans backing it and two Democrats defecting.

On Thursday, the House also voted to extend the review period for background checks.

The bills’ passage underscores the evolution of gun control in Washington since its heyday in the early 1990s. That’s when President Bill Clinton signed a ban on assault weapons and a background check measure that only applied to federally licensed dealers. Many rural and Southern Democrats voted against both measures, and the party paid a stiff price at the ballot box, with Republicans seizing control of Congress in 1994. Even after Democrats regained the majority in 2006, they shied away from pressing for new gun control measures.  

Today, however, Democrats are emboldened – and unified, moving with public opinion. 

The drumbeat of periodic mass shootings, overwhelming public support for expanded background checks, and revved-up activism by voters and organizations, all factor into the Democratic consensus on this issue. Their retaking of the House has given them the power to act on that consensus – as does their current geographic makeup.

“Compared with the 1990s or even the early 2000s, House Democrats today are far less dependent on districts with large numbers of culturally conservative blue-collar and rural voters,” notes Ronald Brownstein, senior political analyst for CNN. Instead, he writes, they’re centered on urban and suburban districts supportive of more gun regulation. In essence, the congressional electoral map aligns neatly with the gun-regulation agenda.

But the realigning of Democrats into an urban-suburban party and Republicans into a largely rural party appears to be working against expanded gun regulation in the Republican-controlled Senate – at least for now.

While public opinion heavily favors expanded background checks – even 79 percent of Republicans support it, according to Pew Research Center – GOP lawmakers do not plan to bring up the House bills in the Senate, and Trump has said he’d veto them.

“I think the Senate has spoken on that issue,” says Sen. John Thune (R) of South Dakota, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber. He pointed to a year ago, when, in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, the Senate chose to strengthen the existing background check system and increase resources for school safety. Gun control advocates called those measures “baby steps.”

The closest the Senate came to passing major legislation on expanding background checks was the Manchin-Toomey bill of 2013, named for its bipartisan co-sponsors, Sens. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia and Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania. The bill emerged from the outcry over the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

But even under a Senate controlled by Democrats, it failed to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster, falling six votes short. The National Rifle Association opposed the bill, and four Democrats from rural states with strong gun cultures voted against it. Today’s Senate is now in Republican hands, with fewer moderates.

“The NRA doesn’t have the influence it once did, but their mantra of ‘never give an inch’ is so ingrained in the GOP’s psyche that they are afraid of passing gun control legislation that has broad support and is good common sense,” says Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report in an email.

Senator Toomey says he’s “actively speaking with colleagues” to see what it would take to get to 60 votes on something similar to Manchin-Toomey, but admits “progress is very limited.” Senator Manchin is also pessimistic. “We haven’t had any more buy-in from our Republican colleagues at all.”

It’s also unclear whether some of the Senate’s more liberal Democrats – especially those running for president – would even sign on to their bill, which is more conservative than the House measure. The party has moved left on health care (“Medicare for All”) and the environment (“Green New Deal”). When Manchin-Toomey seemed briefly poised for a revival last year, some advocates of stricter gun laws backed away from it.

Among Democrats, this leaves 2020 as the great hope for gun regulation to actually become law. While it's an uphill climb, Democrats are hoping for a Senate takeover, with Republicans having far more seats to defend. And then there’s the presidency up for grabs.

“This is a step in the right direction,” says Kara Chine, an activist from San Diego who came to the House this week in support of expanded background checks. “It’s getting the American people’s voice heard, since the majority of Americans support this. I feel like every vote is more evidence brought forth.”

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