The gun control long game

The question isn't just whether anything happens now -- it's also what happens two Novembers from now

Topics: Opening Shot, Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Gun Control,

Addressing House Democrats during their annual retreat this week, Vice President Joe Biden encouraged them to cast aside two decades of fear about the political ramifications of embracing gun control and to act boldly on the issue.

“The ability, because of all this happening, to misrepresent our positions no longer exists as it did in 1994,” he said. “The world has changed. The American public has changed. You can go into areas you’re told you can’t go and politically survive. I’m telling you, the times have changed.”

‘94 is a key date in the history of gun control politics. That year’s midterm election came after two years of complete Democratic control in Washington, a period in which President Clinton and his party (with some scattered Republican assistance) enacted the Brady Bill and an assault weapons ban, the first gun legislation to make it into law in a quarter-century. But when Democrats suffered an historic drubbing that November, losing the House for the first time since 1954 and the Senate too, it became common wisdom within the party that their activist agenda on gun control had hurt them.

Democrats didn’t abandon the issue completely (they featured Jim and Sarah Brady at their 1996 convention and pushed for an expansion of background checks after Columbine in 1999), but their reading of the ’94 results along with the endurance of the GOP’s congressional majorities sapped the pre-November ’94 momentum for further gun legislation. Then, when Al Gore lost a handful of rural, gun-friendly states that had sided with Clinton – think West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee – the conviction of party leaders that gun control was a political loser hardened. For more than a decade after the 2000 election, leading Democrats ran from their gun control past and bent over backward to assuage the fears of gun owners.



That approach lasted through President Obama’s first term, which included several mass shootings, but only one presidential action on guns: signing legislation that made it easier to carry them in national parks. But then came December’s Sandy Hook tragedy, which has focused the public, the media and the political class on gun control in a way that no post-’94 development – Columbine included – ever did. This is the new climate that Biden is talking about, one in which there is a widespread appetite among voters for lawmakers to do something, anything to stem the tide of gun violence. It is in this climate that real legislative movement on strengthening background checks and perhaps cracking down on interstate gun trafficking suddenly seems possible.

What, if anything, will make it into law right now is an open question. Even if Democrats take Biden’s advice, there’s still the matter of the Republican-controlled House and the de facto 60-vote Senate. The public’s desire for some type of action may ultimately force House GOP leaders to allow a vote on, say, background checks, and to convince Senate Republicans not to filibuster (or to compel enough of them to join Democrats in killing a filibuster).

But while this could have a real impact on gun violence, any bill that passes this year will probably leave a lot to be desired, at least as far as gun control proponents are concerned. It already seems likely, for instance, that Dianne Feinstein’s effort to revive the assault weapons ban will fall flat, and the prospects of ammunition clip capacity restrictions passing don’t seem that good. And anything beyond that – like, say, a federal gun buyback program – isn’t even on the table right now.

But this is where the story of ’94 (and for that matter ’00) comes in. Exactly why Democrats were crushed in the ’94 midterms is impossible to say. Other factors – a tax hike in 1993, a failed effort at healthcare reform, a negative reaction to single-party rule – surely played a big role, but what really matters in politics is how leaders choose to interpret elections. So even though it’s possible guns weren’t a huge part of the GOP’s ’94 victory formula, what’s relevant is that Democrats believed they were – just as they believed guns were one of Gore’s chief problems in ’00. What this tells us is that the 2014 midterms will go a long way toward determining if there’s a follow-up to any gun legislation that passes Congress now – whether this ends up being the prelude to more sweeping and comprehensive reforms in 2015 or 2016.

The question is what message about guns Democrats – and Republicans, for that matter – decide to take out of next year’s midterms. If action is taken this year and a bunch of incumbent Democratic senators from pro-gun states lose their seats next year, the party will likely conclude that the renewed gun control push was the reason; a new round of post-’14 reforms would be unlikely. But what if new laws are passed this year and most or all of those Democratic incumbents survive? And if the same thing happens at the House level? Or if some anti-gun control Republicans from swing districts are voted out? Under that scenario, Democrats might emerge from the ’14 midterms emboldened to press for more new laws, and Republicans from competitive districts might believe there’s no choice but to go along.

Again, it’s basically impossible to determine exactly what message – if any – the electorate is trying to send in any given electorate. But that doesn’t stop politicians from imputing lessons from the results anyway. So there’s a real opportunity for gun control proponents in ’14. Democrats won’t be exposed in the House the way they were in ’94, since they’re already the minority party. And, at least for now, all of their Senate incumbents are decently positioned. Plus, to the extent guns are a major issue, real money from pro-gun control groups could find its way into key races in a way it hasn’t before. In other words, Washington might wake up to a brand new consensus two Novembers from now: See, Biden was right –  gun control isn’t a career-killer anymore.

Steve Kornacki

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

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>