The return of the gun control party

Barack Obama's ambitious gun control agenda puts an end to two decades of Democratic cowardice

Topics: Opening Shot, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Gun Control, Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt, Editor's Picks,

The fate of the ambitious gun control package Barack Obama laid out on Wednesday will be determined in the weeks and months to come. But the events that led to the president’s declaration of war on gun violence represent a dramatic shift for his party – one that will be felt for years to come. Essentially, Wednesday was the moment that Democrats re-embraced their status as the party of gun control.

In a way, of course, they’ve always been the gun control party. It was a Democratic president, FDR, who targeted gangster weapons like sawed-off shotguns with a hefty tax in 1934 and who, four years later, signed a law requiring those selling firearms to obtain licenses. And it was another Democrat, LBJ, who pushed through the Gun Control Act of 1968, which banned sales of firearms by mail and to minors. Both FDR and LBJ initially sought more expansive regulations, only to see their plans watered down by Congress. More recently, it was Bill Clinton who signed the Brady Bill, which mandated a five-day waiting period for the purchase of a gun, and an assault weapons ban. And now it’s Obama’s turn to push for a renewed assault weapons ban, limits on high-capacity magazines, universal background checks (and a more comprehensive federal registry), and research into the roots of gun violence.

But the gap between Clinton’s successes, which came in the first half of his first term, and Obama’s announcement this week spanned nearly 20 years – a period during which the Democratic Party all but gave up on the issue of guns.

This was the result of the 1994 and 2000 elections. It’s hard to believe now, but in the spring of 1994, it was fashionable for political commentators to declare that the National Rifle Association was in terminal decline. The group had lobbied hard against both the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban, and yet each managed to pass the House and Senate, with strong Democratic support and a not insignificant number of Republicans signing on too. No longer, the new consensus held, would Republicans and Democrats from pro-gun states be swayed by the NRA’s threats, and more legislation aimed at curbing gun violence was sure to follow.

Then came the 1994 midterms, which wiped out more than 50 Democratic House members and handed control of both chambers to the GOP, a political tsunami that few saw coming until the very end. There are many explanations for the GOP’s romp that year, including the tax hike that Clinton and Democrats enacted in ’93 and their unsuccessful push for healthcare reform. But it did not go unnoticed by Democrats that districts with rural, gun-owning populations turned hard against them and played a key role in the GOP’s landslide. The NRA, of course, was happy to claim credit. Clinton managed to bounce back and win reelection in 1996, but for the final six years of his term, gun control was an afterthought at best.

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This, however, didn’t stop those same rural, gun owner-rich states from siding with the GOP in the 2000 election. History will always regard Florida as the state that decided the Bush-Gore contest, but if Gore had carried Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, West Virginia or Kentucky – all states that his boss won twice – then he’d have won the election anyway. Whether guns were the reason voters in these states turned on Gore is debatable; it may just have marked the latest twist in the lengthy, inevitable march of lower-income rural white voters away from the Democratic Party and into the GOP fold. But whatever the reason, a strong consensus emerged within the Democratic Party: We need to stop being identified with gun control, or we won’t win anymore national elections.

This is the consensus that sent John Kerry on a goose hunt in rural Ohio the week before the 2004 election, that prompted candidate Obama to stay far away from guns as an issue in 2008 (well, in public anyway) and that prompted President Obama to take only one action on guns in his first term, signing a bill that made it easier to carry them in national parks.

But for all the bending over backward that Democrats did to avoid the “gun control party” label, they really had nothing to show for it. The NRA, Republicans, and pro-gun groups in general continued to portray them as enemies of the 2nd Amendment, just waiting to confiscate everyone’s guns if they ever got the chance. And the voters that Democrats were so scared of alienating, rural gun owners, didn’t suddenly come flocking back to them. And the other major justification for this approach – that Democrats running for office in red states would be hurt by their association with a national party aggressively pursuing gun control – increasingly came to seem misguided. After all, Democrats were the gun control party to rural pro-gun voters; Democratic candidates in red states were already paying the price for their party label – even if national Democrats weren’t actually doing anything on guns.

But that calculation is changing, dramatically. With his announcement on Wednesday, Obama went farther than Clinton ever went; he is now waging the most aggressive campaign for gun control since LBJ more than 40 years ago. In so doing, he’s responding not just to the public’s post-Newtown desire for action; he’s responding to where the majority of his party is. This is reflected in the recent actions of other leading Democrats. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, for instance, just pushed an ambitious gun safety program through the New York legislature, and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley is now trying to match him. Cuomo and O’Malley have something in common: Both are interested in the party’s 2016 nomination. Ditto for Joe Biden, who was deputized by Obama to draw up the recommendations the president presented on Wednesday.

What we are seeing is the elevation of gun control to a priority issue within the Democratic Party. There is considerable pressure from interest group leaders, activists and grassroots activists to junk the caution that has defined the party’s gun strategy for the last two decades, and the party’s leaders are responding to it. Almost certainly, Obama’s program will be watered down by Congress, and whatever ultimately passes – if anything passes – will have a modest impact on curbing gun violence.

That doesn’t mean the effort won’t be worth it. The real significance of the coming battle is that it marks the Democratic Party’s re-embrace of the gun control label. There will be real pressure on Democratic candidates in 2014 and 2016 to propose ways to build on Obama’s reforms will be; the party base will expect the issue to be a priority among its leaders. For the first time in a long time, the prospect for serious progress on gun control is real – even if it takes a little time.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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