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Why did Democrats give up on gun control?

In response to the shooting in Tucson, Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Carolyn McCarthy have introduced a bill to ban high-capacity magazines like the one that was used in the killing. If this measure goes anywhere, it would be a major break from recent history. That’s because, for the past ten years or so, neither party has wanted to tackle gun control. Of course, it’s no surprise that Republicans have opposed tightening restrictions. But why did Democrats give up on the issue?

The high-water mark for modern gun policy came in 1999. That year, in the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School, the Senate passed the most sweeping legislation since the 1994 assault weapons ban, which had outlawed the production of certain types of semiautomatic guns as well as high-capacity magazines. The Senate bill would have required all sellers (not just licensed dealers) to conduct background checks at gun shows, mandated that handguns be sold with child-safety devices, and further restricted high-capacity magazines.

But the Senate’s bill died in the House after Democrat (and former NRA board member) John Dingell successfully pushed an amendment watering it down. The remaining Democratic supporters gave up on the bill, preferring inaction to legislation that, they said, would weaken existing law. As Senator Chuck Schumer phrased it, “This idea that we should pass flawed legislation and then let the NRA attack us and say it’s not working—enough of that.”

Democrats planned to revamp their efforts by taking the matter to voters in the 2000 election, confident they had a winning issue. Early in his campaign, Al Gore emphasized his support for gun control, endorsing, in March 2000, mandatory child-safety locks and supporting photo I.D. requirements for the purchase of handguns. But, only a few months later, gun control had largely disappeared from his campaign, prompting headlines like “GORE SHOOTS BLANKS ON GUNS.”

Some of the shift, of course, occurred after Gore dispatched the more-liberal Bill Bradley in the primary. Bradley’s exit reduced Gore’s need to protect his left flank by aggressively pushing gun control. But far more important than Gore’s new found freedom to move rightward was the NRA’s $10-million-plus campaign aimed at discouraging gun-toting, swing-state-residing union members from voting for Gore. “The gun issue helps Gore nationwide,” political scientist Robert J. Spitzer, told the Los Angeles Times. “But it doesn’t help him in the electoral college.” So Gore crept away from the issue.

After Gore’s narrow defeat, Democrats became convinced gun control was a major factor in his loss. If the Gore campaign had not been so strident, Representative Max Sandlin told Cox News Service, “there’s absolutely no doubt that Vice President Gore would be president.” The NRAprobably had more to do than anyone else in the fact we didn’t win the House this time, and they hurt Al Gore,” said Bill Clinton.

These diagnoses, however, share a fatal flaw. As this magazine has repeatedly noted, gun control was not the primary cause of Gore’s defeat; he actually often won in states where gun-control foes targeted him. As Pollster Ed Sarpolus pointed out, the swing states of Pennsylvania and Michigan voted for Gore despite an anti-Gore campaign by the NRA. Gore also won Iowa and Wisconsin, two other gun-friendly states. Across the country, a slate of pro-gun-control candidates managed to win congressional elections.

There is additional evidence as well. A Los Angeles Times exit poll found a near-even Bush-Gore split among voters listing gun control as a major influence on their choice; Bush supporters, it seems weren’t riled up by gun control any more than Gore supporters. Among Bush voters, 30 percent said “disapproval over Clinton’s personal behavior” motivated their allegiance, compared to the 19 percent who blamed gun control. Moreover, a 2003 study found that the average voter felt a closer affinity to Gore’s views on gun control than Bush’s. The issue, according to the study’s authors, had a small but statistically significant effect on voting behavior; on the balance, gun control likely won Gore more votes than it lost him. Contrary to many Democrats’ pre-election expectations, gun control didn’t propel the party to victory, but neither did guns single-handedly lose him the election, as many Democrats would later conclude.

Nevertheless, most Democrats have almost entirely avoided the issue ever since. In 2002, Bob Shrum and James Carville’s blueprint for Democratic victory completely omitted gun control. In the next few election cycles, it got scant attention. The 2004 Democratic platform and Kerry campaign were both unambitious, calling only for modest changes. In 2006, Democrats actively courted “pro-gun” Democrats, like then-Virginia Governor Mark Warner. And DNC Chairman Howard Dean pushed candidates to frame gun control as a state issue. Rahm Emanuel, then heading the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, endorsed a hands-off policy: Candidates have “got to reflect their districts,” he said, according to The Boston Globe. A narrative emerged: The NRA would use its fearsome powers to smite any Democrat with the temerity to support gun control in any district that wasn’t staunchly liberal.

This fear-driven shift made the ’00s a decade in which gun laws got looser. In 2004, the federal assault weapons ban expired. A year later, Congress gave gun manufacturers and dealers near-total immunity from lawsuits by victims of gun crime. To a certain extent, this is isn’t surprising: Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House. But the situation didn’t improve after the Democrats won Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. During Nancy Pelosi’s tenure as speaker, no bill to extend the assault weapons ban got a vote on the House floor. Pelosi did, however, find time to pass an NRA-backed bill protecting the guns of bankrupt individuals from seizure. (It died in the Senate.)

Under Majority Leader Harry Reid, a long-time opponent of gun control, the Senate also let the un-renewed assault weapons ban lie dormant. And Reid joined 21 other Democrats and almost all Senate Republicans in attaching an amendment to a District of Columbia voting rights bill that would have eviscerated the District’s gun laws had it passed.Congress did manage to pass a bill improving the thoroughness of pre-gun-purchase background checks in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings. But that legislation hardly qualifies as an accomplishment—even the NRA endorsed it.

Barack Obama’s election was supposed to be a turning point, but, at the halfway mark of his presidency, he has shown little to justify the NRA’s alarmist warnings. In fact, gun control activists are largely unhappy with his record so far. After his first year in office, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence released a report called “Failed Leadership, Lost Lives” and gave the president an “F” in every category. Obama promised to reinstate the assault weapons ban during his campaign, and as of mid-January, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the president still supports such measures. But, after two years with majorities in both chambers and no progress, it’s hard to take him seriously. It’s worth remembering that this discussion centers on what was, as recently as 2004, already law. Democrats have made zero progress in actually advancing new, common-sense gun control.

The issue is now so far off the radar that an exasperated Representative Mike Quigley complained to The Hill in August 2010 that he “couldn’t even get a hearing” to consider it. “I’m not blaming the Republicans. I’m blaming [Democratic] leadership and the administration,” he said. “They’re in charge. … It’s a question of priorities.” And for most Democrats, the priority is avoiding the NRA’s ire. The NRA’s powers may be overrated; but the fear they instill is real.

Giving in to that fear, however, means that people will die. It’s unlikely the assault weapons ban would have prevented or even substantially hampered Jared Loughner’s killing spree in Arizona. But had Congress passed a law requiring built-in child-safety devices, Anthony J. Wells, a ten-year-old who found his father’s unloaded gun, found ammunition, and then accidentally shot himself to death, might still be alive. Tighter background checks and an updated assault weapons ban would both help keep high-powered weapons out of the hands of criminals and stem the flow of thousands of guns across the border to Mexico. And other simple measures, such as requiring all sellers at gun shows to conduct background checks, get widespread support, even among NRA members. There are signs in Washington that Obama may finally address some of these issues, although details are in short supply. Tackling gun control—and standing up the NRA—may scare career politicians. But the sad state of gun control is even scarier.

Alexander Hart is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.

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