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Gun Control's Long Game

Obama lost on policy. He may yet win on politics.


Now that even a watered-down effort to “do something” about guns in response to the mass slaughter of small children in Newtown has collapsed in the Senate, it’s time to look political reality squarely in the face: No external shock, no matter how extreme, will clear a path for meaningful gun control legislation to emerge from Congress.

In the end, the debate in the Senate wasn’t even about serious reform. Nobody ever gave a ban on so-called assault weapons a chance of passage, and it went down 60 against and 40 in favor (which might actually have been a better showing than anticipated). But when all that’s on the table is expanded background checks for gun buyers, and the president himself has designated gun legislation his top priority early in his second term — and still the measure falls six votes short of the 60 required to advance against a filibuster — then it’s time for gun control proponents to acknowledge that they are a long, long way from having made the political case.

But as to whether Obama has actually suffered the great defeat that many have proclaimed, the answer is no, he hasn’t. That’s because gun control, like everything else, has two components: the policy and the politics. No, there won’t be any gun legislation coming out of this Congress. But how the issue works politically is a very different question.

The president and supporters of his latest push like to note that 90-plus percent of Americans support background checks at gun shows, the point on which the Senate faltered. The correct response to this, however, is: big deal. In truth, gun control polling is a pretty mixed bag, and the most important element in public opinion here is that people who are in favor of more gun restrictions tend to be much less passionate in their views than people who are opponents of restrictions or support expanded gun rights, such as “concealed carry.” There won’t be a Democratic senator from Montana who's up for re-election and supports gun restrictions any time soon, as indeed Max Baucus did not this week and will not1.

But that doesn’t make what Obama has been up to a waste of time politically. It was clear from the cool but edgy statement he delivered in the Rose Garden Wednesday that he personally cares deeply about the issue. More to the point, though, if he sees political possibilities here, he is probably right.

No, Montana is not in play. Nor is there much likelihood that the National Rifle Association is going to lose its grip on its ardent supporters or on the U.S. Congress. If anything, events this week constitute a demonstration exercise on the part of the NRA that not even Newtown is a sufficient backdrop for advancing gun restrictions.

But what Obama can reasonably hope for and pursue is a sharpening of political passion on his side of the issue. If he can take a group of people who are vaguely in favor of gun restrictions but don’t much care about the issue (or politics in general) and convert them into passionate gun control supporters who will turn out to vote on the issue, he will have achieved something  considerable. Such a group of voters may not be enough to turn around a Senate race, but it might well be enough to make a difference in some House districts, especially in  midterm elections. Organizing for America, the Obama campaign 2012 successor institution, has been collecting email addresses of supporters of gun control. No doubt this data base will figure prominently in outreach efforts for 2014.

In case anybody has missed the point, the process of identifying your supporters and ensuring that they vote has been transformed by our new wikiculture of social media from a game of aggregates to a game of micro-targeting. I doubt that Obama or his political operatives know how many previously apathetic Americans they can convert into energized voters as a result of this push on gun control. But you kind of get the idea that they mean to find out.

Jonathan S. Tobin notes that Senate Republicans may have done the party no favor by opposing this legislation. Rather than going along with something essentially anodyne and thereby defusing the issue, their 90 percent opposition gives Democrats something to work against the GOP from now until the midterm.

The broader question is whether the issue can become too big to defuse. The Obama passion for gun control makes political sense as part of a long game that is as much about  coalition-building and turnout motivation as the policy preferences that galvanize them.  

  1. This piece was updated to reflect the fact that Baucus' Democratic colleague, Jon Tester, did not oppose the legislation. Tester was re-elected last fall.