How Democrats might get to 'yes' on gun control

To move their agenda on reducing gun violence forward, congressional Democrats will have to woo, and reassure, gun owners. But that won't preclude some tough political maneuvering.

Rick Bowmer/AP
Gun enthusiasts packed in by the hundreds to purchase weapons and ammunition during the 2013 Rocky Mountain Gun Show, Jan. 6, in Sandy, Utah.
Charles Dharapak/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio performs a mock swearing in for Rep. Mike Thompson (D) of California, Jan. 3, on Capitol Hill in Washington as the new Congress began.

If President Obama and congressional Democrats are going to make headway on the gun violence proposals Vice President Joe Biden is set to deliver to the president on Tuesday, their strategy will probably look a lot like gun-owning Rep. Mike Thompson – and move with the energy and purpose of political cage fighter Rahm Emanuel.

Representative Thompson (D) of California remembers where he was on Dec. 14, the day of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. He was in a duck blind, back home in his Napa Valley district.

“Federal law prohibits me from having more than three shells in my shotgun,” Thompson said Monday at the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP). “So federal law provides more protection for the ducks than it does” for people, he said, referring to ammunition magazines that can hold 30 or more bullets.

Thompson, chairman of a Democratic committee charged with making recommendations for new “gun violence prevention” measures (Democrats want no part of being pro-“gun control”), is emblematic of the central plank of Democrats’ strategic approach to gun control: put on a friendly face.

Both Thompson and Mr. Biden, the leader of the president’s own task force, are lifelong gun owners who are quick to point out that no, the federal government is absolutely not coming to seize your arms.

“We’re on a little different footing than ever before on this subject,” said Thompson, referring to a 2008 US Supreme Court’s ruling affirming Americans’ ability to possess guns. “American citizens have a right to own firearms. So the idea that one side believes that we should take all the guns, it’s not part of the discussion. And the other side thinks we are trying to get all the guns, that’s not either.”

But a genteel sales pitch will get you only so far.

That’s where Chicago Mayor Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s former White House chief of staff, comes in. Emanuel is a legislative veteran, the point man for President Bill Clinton’s successful gun legislation in the mid-1990s and the man who put the kibosh on a potential battle over guns in Obama’s first term.

This time around, Emanuel, who spoke at CAP with Thompson, says Democrats need to take a half-dozen discrete steps to succeed.

First, they need to frame the changes they seek – whether background checks on all gun sales or a limit on the sale of assault weapons – as “all about criminal access” to firearms, Emanuel said Monday. “It’s not about gun control; it’s about criminal access to guns. That changes the debate.”

Next, Democrats need to take a page out of Mr. Clinton’s playbook and keep “the police chief and the law enforcement community front and center.” Highlighting law enforcement support for the plan, as Clinton did in 1994, helped remove the issue from the partisan terrain of gun rights versus gun control and placed it into an argument about policy and community safety.

Third, Emanuel emphasized that Democrats should make sure Americans get a good look at assault weapons and their associated bullet magazines, restrictions on which are likely to be the most controversial piece of the White House’s policy recommendations.

There’s “a difference between the magazine that holds 10 [bullets] and magazine that holds 20 or 30,” Emanuel said. And there’s “a lot of different type of damage done” with the latter.

Then, Emanuel’s puzzle involves Democrats sticking up for one another come election season: They need to be willing to go to the wall for members in districts with more difficult gun politics.

“If the person is going to take the vote,” he said, reflecting on Democratic losses in the 1994 congressional elections that many attribute to voting for the president’s assault weapons ban, “don’t walk away from them come the political season.”

Moreover, the president would be wise to act on smaller but still controversial issues through executive order when possible, Emanuel advised. Obama has said he will weigh which issues could be handled through executive decisionmaking, a prospect that has infuriated congressional Republicans who believe the president too-frequently sidesteps Capitol Hill’s authority.

“Push the limit on [executive action],” Emanuel said. “Clear the table, man. Don’t allow a side issue to derail these things. [The eventual legislation] is going to be perilous enough.”

With that strategy in place, Democrats should put Republicans into a position similar to that of the fiscal cliff fight: a Senate-passed bill on their doorstep and the president using his political moxie to turn up the heat.

“Get it done [in the Senate] and then clear the decks and put the ultimate pressure on the House,” Emanuel said. “Put the burner up.”

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