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 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • 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>