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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 writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornackiMore Steve Kornacki.
Like little stars.
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Alex Pareene surveys the burgeoning and bloated world of political news and opinion and explains the day's most essential story in Opening Shot, posted by 8:30 a.m. each weekday. Bookmark this page; follow @pareene on Twitter.