Will Democrats give up on guns?

If the South is a lost cause, the road to the White House must run through the West. Will going easy on gun control make it easier to travel?

Published April 13, 2005 4:07PM (EDT)

A Minnesota teenager shoots and kills nine people with a gun stolen from his grandfather. A Wisconsin man kills seven members of his church with 22 rounds from a 9mm handgun. In another era, the violence might have given rise to a new round of ripped-from-the-headlines legislation on gun control. But not now, and not just because the Republicans control Congress.

In an effort to begin to win back the middle, Democrats are beginning to step away from gun control as a central party issue. The theory: Something's got to give, and it's politically more palatable to go soft on guns than to retreat on other hot-button issues like abortion or gay rights. While a group of House Democrats requested new hearings on gun control in the wake of last month's shootings on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, the Democratic response has generally been more muted -- when there has been a response at all. In a brief interview the other day with an Arkansas writer, Howard Dean predicted that guns won't be much of a factor as Democrats plot their national strategy. "Guns aren't an issue," Dean said. "If Philadelphia wants gun control, fine. If Alabama doesn't, also fine."

Forget Alabama, writer Sasha Abramsky says in this week's issue of the Nation. Gun control or no gun control, Abramsky says there are "simply too many other tendencies within the contemporary South and rural center of the country pushing voters into the Republican camp to make it easy for a Democrat to win large chunks of either region without abandoning many, if not all, of the party's core principles."

Think New Mexico, Nevada, maybe Colorado or Montana, Abramsky says. "It is at least conceivable that in closely divided Western states, where guns seem to excite more across-the-spectrum passion than do abortion and gay rights ... a Democrat could win with a traditional Democratic message on most issues fused with a new rhetoric around the Second Amendment." Abramsky says that "coastal Democrats and representatives from big cities may not like the pro-gun-ownership arguments or understand the emotional allure of the shooting range," but they also don't much like losing national elections.

Use a more gun-friendly strategy to put together wins in New Mexico and Nevada and somehow pick up Iowa or Colorado or Montana, and the Democrats suddenly have a road map that leads back to the White House without a drive through Dixie. When Howard Dean was asked the other day about his desire to appeal to "guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks," he said: "I'd say that differently now." Maybe what he meant was this: Lose the Southern Cross on the bumper, but keep the gun rack in the rear window.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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