Did Bush v. Gore Eviscerate Gun Control?

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AUGUST 6, 2012

Did Bush v. Gore Eviscerate Gun Control?

In the days after the Aurora horror I was considering floating a theory about the past decade’s decline in support for gun control even in the face of a string of mass shootings. I never got around to it, and put it on the back burner. Well, here we are just a couple weeks later and I once again have what we in the news business call a “peg” for my argument—another half dozen shot dead by a well-armed nutcase. So, here’s my idea: that the Supreme Court seriously undermined the prospects for gun control efforts long before its 2008 ruling in D.C. v. Heller, which affirmed the Second Amendment right to bear arms in very strong terms. When was that? Well, in another little case from 2000, Bush v. Gore.

It’s easy to forget now, but there was a time, not so long ago, when it was not anathema for politicians—well, Democratic ones, at least—to propose major restrictions on gun ownership. In the 2000 Democratic primaries, Bill Bradley ran on a platform of registering all handguns, and repeatedly challenged his opponent, Al Gore, for being too soft on the issue. Consider this exchange at a debate in Harlem:

BRADLEY [to Gore]: I’ve offered the strongest gun control proposal of any presidential candidate in history. Gore was a conservative Congressman—he voted with the NRA.

GORE: The Clinton-Gore administration has passed the toughest gun control measures in the last 30 years. I cast the tie-breaking vote to close the gun show loophole.

BRADLEY: What you’ve seen is an elaborate “Gore Dance.” It is a dance to avoid facing up to your conservative record on guns. It is a dance that denies the fact that you do not support registration and licensing of all handguns, but you want to give the impression of that, so you say, “I’m for licensing of all mmmm-handguns.” What does that mean? It means, “I’m for licensing of all new handguns,” only new. Not the 65 million that are out there.

GORE: I support a complete ban on junk guns, assault weapons, and yes, I support photo license I.D.’s for the purchase of all new handguns when somebody goes down to the gun store.

Come the general election, Gore was being hit from the other side—as being anti-gun. Led by Charlton Heston, then head of the NRA, the right hammered Gore on the gun issue, particularly in then-swing states where it was likely to resonate, such as West Virginia and Gore's home state of Tennessee. Gore lost both states, but that would have been moot had he carried Florida. But when the Supreme Court awarded Florida and the presidency to Bush, it brought to the fore the losses in other smaller states that would have put Gore over the top, and the reasons for those losses. The lesson many Democrats drew from the losses was plain: it was gun control that done it. And from that point on, gun control has pretty much been non grata on the national Democratic agenda. Take, for example, this report from John Kerry's 2004 effort in West Virginia:

Republican strategists say cultural issues will trump economic issues, as they did in 2000. And they are counting on three of West Virginia’s most potent political forces, the National Rifle Association, the coal industry and conservative churches, to attack Mr. Kerry and deliver the Republican faithful to the polls.

Many Democrats say a series of rip-roaring speeches by Charlton Heston, when he was president of the National Rifle Association, attacking Mr. Gore in 2000 helped turn the tide here toward Mr. Bush late in the campaign. As Election Day nears, the rifle association plans to gear up a similar campaign against Mr. Kerry, using rallies, gun clubs, the Internet and television commercials to paint him as an elitist liberal who wants to restrict gun owners’ rights.

“It’s an emotional issue here,” said Bill Miller, an insurance agent from Beckley who is on the national board of the association. “When people hear that you want to ban assault weapons, as Mr. Kerry does, they say, ‘Next they will try to ban my hunting rifle.’”

The mine workers’ union has tried to defuse the gun issue by distributing leaflets featuring Mr. Kerry as a hunter who supports the Second Amendment. The union president, Cecil Roberts, even gave Mr. Kerry a union-made hunting rifle at a Labor Day rally.

The rifle association was quick to say the rifle would have been outlawed under legislation where Mr. Kerry was a co-sponsor. Democrats deny that. But Raymond Fink, 50, an architect from Beckley, has no doubts that the rifle association is correct.

A lifelong Democrat who voted Republican for the first time in 2000, Mr. Fink said, he plans to vote for Mr. Bush again in large part because the president opposes gun control.

“I think the Democrats are out of touch,” he said as he strolled in a gun store near Beckley recently. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Kerry would ban every gun he could.”

No, the court cannot really be held responsible for the second-order consequences of its 2000 ruling—the ruling’s fundamental weakness and transparent partisanship is reason enough to hold it in everlasting scorn. But as we mourn another clutch of mass-shooting victims, it’s worth considering that the mind-bogglingly manifold what-might’ve-beens spreading out from Bush v. Gore include the fraught cause of reining in our homegrown bloodshed.

*Addendum, 1:40 p.m.: If there’s any doubt about how rapid the Democrats’ 2000 pivot away from gun control was, check out the 2002 piece by my colleague, Noam Scheiber, which determined that the party’s commitment on the issue took root during the general election and then blossomed into dogma after the wrenching eventual outcome:

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.”

Except, as Noam goes on to explain, if you look at it more closely, they were wrong.

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posted in: alec macgillis, al gore, bill bradley, bush, charlton heston, john kerry, aurora, west virginia, supreme court, supreme court, the plank

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