POLITICS JANUARY 29, 2001
If you were a gun-control supporter last spring, life was sweet. Al Gore and Bill Bradley were climbing over each other trying to prove their devotion to the issue. After a rash of school shootings, President Clinton was taunting the National Rifle Association ("I'm just trying to keep more people alive"), and Democrats had practically shut down Capitol Hill in a push for meaningful gun legislation. GOP aides worried that the issue would hurt them in November, and even Dick Armey groused that "it's not a good discussion." When Smith and Wesson announced it would accept a sweeping set of voluntary safety regulations, the Republicans' fear was palpable.
Yet talk to Democratic politicians about gun control these days and what's palpable is the silence. Not long after the election, The Washington Post reported that "several lawmakers suggested that party leaders may be better off playing down their support for gun-control legislation," a sentiment echoed two days later in The New York Times. Conservative Democrats like Marion Berry of Arkansas confide that "[Dick] Gephardt has said [the leadership] is not going to whip us on [gun control] anymore." And even a reliable liberal like Barney Frank advises that there's not "going to be a major push on this [issue]."
How did gun control, a political winner just ten months ago, become such a liability today? It didn't; the evidence that gun control hurts the Democrats is very weak. And, in the coming years, gun control might actually help them considerably-assuming, that is, that they ever stop running away from it.
If there was a single moment when the conventional wisdom on gun control shifted, it was last July, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. As Stan Greenberg, Gore's pollster, tells it, the Gore camp took a hard look at the electoral map and reached an unavoidable conclusion. "The entire target of communication was Pennsylvania, western Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa. That's the world Gore was trying to reach;' Greenberg recalls. Since these areas were chock-full of gun-toting union members, Team Gore decided that gun control would hurt the vice president in the states he needed most.
After the election, the Gore campaign's hunch became Democratic gospel. Sure, Gore had won the Rust Belt battleground states, but the Democrats had lost their third straight bid to retake Congress--and many in the party believed gun control was to blame. In particular, they pointed to the election's regional: skew. In famously anti-gun California, the Dems knocked off three incumbents. But throughout the rest of the country, they defeated only one. "Of all the issues," insists one senior Democratic congressman, gun control "had the greatest net [negative] effect."
Democrats don't deny that many voters support gun control; they just don't think those voters feel very strongly about it. Party strategists speak of an "intensity gap." "Guns are a motivating issue for a sizable number of voters on the right, but that's not matched elsewhere on the spectrum," laments Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway. "Unlike gay fights, environment, and choice," argues Barney Frank, "Democrats were disappointed when a pro-gun-control bloc did not appear." Gun control may have been useful in the early '90s, when crime rates were high, because it helped neutralize the Democrats' image as pro-criminal. But by the decade's end, with crime receding, the only people who still deemed guns a voting issue were those who owned them.
The logic seems eminently reasonable. And it's mostly wrong. Start with the 2000 election. Yes, House Democrats did poorly outside California. But, with the possible exception of ex-Representative Scotty Baesler's Kentucky district, it's hard to find any evidence that the party's support for gun control hurt individual candidates. Promising Democratic candidates came up short in inner-city Louisville, suburban Chicago, and two urban Florida districts--hardly places where gun control hurts candidates' chances. Meanwhile, in Arkansas' fourth district and Utah's second, two places where gun control does hurt, the Dems now boast two new representatives-one, Utah's Jim Matheson, who actually favors tighter gun restrictions. Though Democrat Paul Perry failed to unseat John Hostettler in a competitive Indiana district, the Democratic challenger's anti-gun-control credentials were never in question. And most local observers believe that David Minge lost his seat in rural Minnesota not because he was deemed anti-gun but because of his opposition to Social Security privatization and George W. Bush's tax cut.
Cross over to the Senate side and gun control may actually have been an advantage. Challenger Mafia Cantwell defeated longtime gun-control obstructionist Slade Gorton in Washington, while NRA lackey Bill McCollum went down in Florida. And even death didn't stop late Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, also a gun-control supporter, from knocking off Second Amendment literalist John Ashcroft. Meanwhile, gun-show-loophole restrictions passed in Oregon and Colorado, two generally pro-gun states.
The intensity gap, it turns out, isn't as clear as many Democrats assume. A segment of the population does indeed vote on guns alone and can be mobilized by the mildest proposed restrictions. But those people--concentrated in the South and the interior West--tend to be deeply suspicious of federal power in general. From race to taxes to the environment, they detest the Democratic agenda, and they wouldn't vote for the party even if it abandoned gun control altogether.
For their part, the blue-collar, largely Midwestern swing voters Greenberg was worried about support the Second Amendment, but they don't consider it a religion. Generally supportive of government regulation of the economy, they must be reassured that Democrats aren't culturally hostile. That doesn't necessarily mean abandoning gun control (or, for that matter, abandoning abortion rights or affirmative action); it means flaming it in a non-threatening way. As Clinton domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed notes, it's possible to support gun control while respecting gun owners' values. That's what Clinton did so well. During his farewell tour last week, Clinton told a gathering of New York union leaders that, despite the state's strict gun-control laws, "nobody's missed a day in the woods in a hunting season; nobody's missed a single sports-shooting event." That kind of rhetoric, as much as the high crime rate, is why gun control benefited Clinton in 1992 and 1996--and why it could benefit Democrats again.
In fact, at the very moment the Democrats are running away from it, gun control as an issue is getting better and better For one thing, crime is inching back up. For another, the administration late last year won significant new funding for gun-law enforcement. Deprived of its maddeningly effective "enforce the laws on the books" strategy, the NRA will find it increasingly difficult to argue that new gun-control restrictions don't help. "Last year they made a lot of noise about the alleged failure of law enforcement to go after gun criminals," says Reed. "I think we finally called them on that."
Look further down the road and you almost get cocky. That's because, as California State University Professor William Vizzard notes, the demographics of gun ownership are changing rapidly. Up until the mid-'6Os, most gun owners were shooting enthusiasts--people who inherited an ethos of gun ownership from their parents and grandparents. But the baby-boomers' coming-of-age and a subsequent crime epidemic created a new breed of gun owner: consumers rather than "lifestyle" owners. Add to that a steady trend toward urbanization, and today the typical gun owner is as likely to be a middle-class suburbanite as a rural sportsman.
In other words, fewer and fewer gun owners feel a visceral attachment to their weapons. And more and more resemble the suburban swing voters for whom gun control, if packaged correctly, isn't terrifying at all. Too bad the leadership of the Democratic Party doesn't feel the same way.