How gun rights for ‘restless natives’ became a stealth battle in Election 2014

The midterm elections feature a highly funded clash over gun rights, with gun-control groups, for the first time, matching the NRA in support for candidates who back their views.

Elaine Thompson/AP/File
Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords testifies before a Washington State House panel in Olympia, Wash., on Jan. 28, 2014. Gun-control groups say this is the year they finally go toe-to-toe with the NRA and match their foe's campaign spending for congressional candidates.

Gun owners in Colorado and Connecticut, two states that passed sweeping gun-control laws in the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., have helped turn Democratic gubernatorial incumbents into poll-trailers – underscoring the extent to which the evolution of the Second Amendment is intermingling with America’s voting habits.

Indeed, voters in several states will cast a vote influenced by their views on guns – their love or hatred for them.

Once up in the polls by eight points, Conn. Gov. Dannel Malloy (D), the architect of America's first dangerous-weapon offender registry, is neck and neck with his challenger, Republican Tom Foley. 

Much of that can be attributed to exasperation over a state-tax increase overseen by Governor Malloy. But there’s little doubt that he's also facing retribution from gun-issue voters, who have a vested interest. After refusing to register their guns under the state’s new registry, tens of thousands of Connecticut gun owners technically became felons under the law.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) was slightly trailing former US Rep. Bob Beauprez going into Election Day, after leading his Republican opponent by 15 points. Governor Hickenlooper’s decision to sign a gun-control bill that limited the size of ammunition magazines and expanded background checks may come at the ultimate political cost.

Massive spending by the National Rifle Association in these elections suggests that gun rights as a get-out-the-vote issue is a powerful one this year. For example, the NRA has outspent gun-control groups by 5 to 1 to try to defeat North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan (D), a moderate on gun rights. Her opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), spearheaded a successful effort to end gun bans in city parks. The outcome of this race could be one that tips control of the US Senate to Republicans. 

Moreover, gun policy – specifically, how incumbent senators voted on the failed Manchin-Toomin gun-control bill last year – is at the forefront of NRA attack ads in at least seven crucial races.

And guns are literally on the agenda for other voters. Washington State residents are being asked two referendum questions, one that would make it illegal to do gun-purchase background checks and confiscate guns without due process. The other would do the opposite, which is to compel the government to conduct background checks for every gun purchased, including between private individuals. 

More broadly, but at least in Connecticut, where Yankee voters have elected moderate Republican governors in the past, the electoral question is whether “a novel coalition of economically affected middle classers and annoyed gun owners can rise up to throw Malloy out,” writes Matt Purple in the National Review. “If they do, sullen Democrats will be forced to ask themselves this question: If progressivism can’t win in Connecticut, then where can it win?”

That sentiment runs both ways, of course. If Malloy or Hickenlooper wins or both, those who supported what could be called a politically risky decision to curb gun rights can then point to the issue as a winner – and thus inspire more elected officials to take a more public stance in support of “common-sense” gun controls. That’s certainly the hope of groups like Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety political-action committee and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s Americans for Responsible Solutions.

Everytown aimed to spend at least as much as the NRA, if not much more, on Election 2014. Mr. Bloomberg vowed a $50 million spend and Americans for Responsible Solutions has boasted an $8 million war chest for Tuesday's elections. To date, according to campaign filings, those two gun-control groups have at least matched much of the NRA's outside funding on key races from North Carolina to Arizona. 

In a year when Republicans could win control of the US Senate, a handful of Republican governors, nevertheless, are struggling in contests seen as referendums on tea party-inspired policies, including broad tax cuts and loosening of gun regulations, writes the Monitor's Mark Trumbull.

Guns, seen by many Americans as a citizen-empowerment tool, have been cited a lot through the Obama presidency, particularly as they relate to America’s rural, largely conservative whites facing an urban, progressive coalition. It’s a powerful notion. After all, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre and many others have written broadly that President Obama and his coalition are intent on “destroying” the Second Amendment.

In support of a lawsuit intended to keep the federal government out of Montana’s gun culture, Gary Marbut, the author of “Gun Laws of Montana,” wrote to the US Supreme Court last year:  “The natives are beyond restless. They are at the stage of collecting torches and pitchforks and preparing to head for the castle gates en masse.”

This being America, commentators say, those restless natives may be using the ballot box as their pitchfork proxy.

Whether such sentiments are enough to send a broader electoral message to politicians to stay away from the American gun cabinet could be, in part, determined Tuesday. Any turn to the right by the US electorate will be partly guided by changing attitudes about what the gun – symbolically, and as a consumer product – means to the American experiment.

Noting the NRA’s $11 million war chest it spent in 2014, Hannah Levintova writes in Mother Jones, “No election cycle in recent memory has seen the guns issue heat up the way this year's has.”

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