Can Democrats Ever Win the Gun Debate?
After 20 children were murdered inside the Sandy Hook elementary school, Democrats in Congress were unable to persuade enough Republicans to pass legislation expanding background checks. After two mass shootings perpetrated by American-born ISIS sympathizers, Democrats couldn’t press enough Republicans to support a bipartisan bill banning gun sales to those on the FBI’s terrorist watch list – let alone consider a ban on the type of assault rifles used in the killings.
Horrific killings. Presidential bully pulpit. Overwhelming poll numbers. House sit-in. Nothing works. Is it even possible for Democrats ever win the gun debate?
Yes, it’s possible. But it would require a Hillary Clinton-led Democratic wave that carries with it the House and Senate. Even then, pockets of resistance from within the Democratic Party would remain. To guarantee triumph, Democrats need to not just win an election; they need to out-organize the National Rifle Association in the states and districts that count.
The last Democratic wave – sweeping in a Democratic Congress in 2006 and a Democratic president in 2008 – was set in motion by downplaying gun control. The conservative magazine Human Events noted that in the 2006 elections, four of the six winning Democratic Senate challengers won with gun rights rhetoric, as did more than half of the 31 new House Democrats. Two Democrats with “A” ratings from the NRA won Senate seats in 2008, plus one more in 2010.
As a 2008 presidential candidate, then-Sen. Barack Obama issued a statement accepting the 5-4 Supreme Court decision establishing an individual right to gun ownership. He proceeded to win several states that eluded Al Gore and John Kerry with gun ownership rates of about one-third or more: Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina.
Democrats continued to keep a low-profile on guns throughout Obama’s first term, refusing to push gun control legislation after the mass shootings in Tucson, Ariz. (severely wounding a Democratic congresswoman) and Aurora, Colo. The strategy worked again in the 2012 presidential election, and brought in two more NRA-blessed Democratic senators.
But then the trauma of the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre made it impossible for Democrats to keep gun control proposals on the shelf, as liberal voters were no longer willing to remain silent on the issue. However, they had not built a pro-gun control Senate supermajority to carry out their demands.
Despite pushing a Senate bill in 2013 with bipartisan co-sponsorship focused on expanding background checks – a position backed by 91 percent of voters – Democrats could not produce a unified front. Four Democrats – representing Arkansas, Alaska, Montana and North Dakota -- broke ranks. (A fifth, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, supported the bill but voted no for procedural reasons.) If they sided with their Democratic colleagues, they would have had 59 votes, and possibly could have persuaded one more Republican to join the four who had already crossed the aisle and broken the NRA-backed filibuster.
Today, Congress as a whole is more conservative, but the Democratic caucus is more liberal. Three of those four Democratic holdouts are no longer in the Senate.
So last week, when another bipartisan compromise on guns was introduced in the Senate – a more narrow proposal preventing people on terrorist watch lists from buying guns – Democrats did produce a united front and brought along eight Republicans to boot. But that still left them six senators short of 60.
Emboldened Democrats say they’re ready to play offense. Party operatives told The Washington Post that they’re emphasizing gun control for competitive Senate races in Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and House races in upstate New York, Florida, Colorado, Iowa and Kansas.
But if Democrats manage to win all six Senate toss-up races, along with the one “lean Republican” (as rated by the Cook Political Report), they would take control of the Senate but would be seven short of 60. (Two of the Republicans they would be ousting – Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey– voted for the 2013 background check bill and wouldn’t be net gains as far as that issue is concerned.)
Few are predicting Democrats will win the 30 seats necessary to retake the House, but if they did, it would involve winning in some pockets of red. Most of the 17 toss-ups and 11 “lean Republican” districts are in bluish territory, but scattered in the mix are districts in the libertarian-friendly West -- Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Nevada – as well as Texas and Iowa where gun ownership—and support for the Second Amendment—is high. If Democrats represented those areas, they would be under heavy pressure to side with the NRA in any future gun vote.
And several Republican senators would still have been convinced that breaking with the NRA was sensible hometown politics.
Republicans have been immune to national polls showing near consensus support for issues like background checks because the NRA is so well organized in their states and districts. To a Republican incumbent in a conservative district or state, it does not matter if the NRA position is a minority position nationally so long as it is majority position that is prioritized by Republican primary voters. And the NRA can credibly threaten to oust a wayward politician in a Republican primary, as several Republican incumbents in recent years have already lost primaries on flimsier grounds.
If gun control advocates are ever going to overcome the NRA’s power, they have to assemble their own grassroots army. Not in liberal states, but in select Republican areas – and in the few remaining swing areas represented by Democrats – where they believe a silent majority of gun control supporters can be identified and turned out to save any incumbent willing to be downgraded by the NRA.
There’s little evidence of such intensive organizing. Everytown for Gun Safety, the Michael Bloomberg-funded organization, boasted in April 2014 of turning out 1.5 million members to the polls on behalf of gun control. Much of its money was funneled to other Democratic-friendly political organizations that tried to shore up vulnerable incumbents who supported gun control, and not on making the case for gun control in their states, let alone in states already represented by Republicans. Everytown even made a show of running some TV ads against a pro-gun rights Democrat, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, which only helped his pro-gun rights Republican challenger Tom Cotton take him out. The red state Democrats that Everytown supported in 2014 didn’t fare much better.
Of course, that was a Republican year. The 2016 pendulum appears poised to swing in the opposite direction. And the bigger the Democratic wave, the fewer the number of vulnerable Democrats and potential Republican recruits that gun control organizers have to worry about.
But worry they must. The battle won’t be won with TV ads or by waving poll numbers in the air. The battle will be won when gun control advocates can prove they can bring their voters to the polls, and not just in bluest parts of America.