There’s no disputing that the Democratic Party has regressed dramatically on the issue of gun violence over the past two decades. When a shooting rampage on the Long Island Railroad killed six people and injured 19 others in December 1993, Bill Clinton responded immediately by calling for specific legislative action to prevent future tragedies. Contrast that with the response of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Friday to a question about whether the carnage in Connecticut might prompt President Obama to pursue gun control measures. “I'm sure there will be another day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates,” Carney said, “but I don’t think today is that day."
It can be hard to remember now, but well into the 1990s, national Democrats proudly associated themselves with gun control, championing laws that restricted access to deadly weapons. Under Clinton, the Brady Bill, which mandated a five-day waiting period for the purchase of handgun, was passed, and so was a ban on assault weapons. The 1996 Democratic Convention that nominated Clinton for a second term featured Jim and Sarah Brady as primetime speakers.
The years since then, however, have been marked by a steady and thus far enduring Democratic retreat on the issue, with the Second Amendment crowd now largely dictating the terms of public discussion and Democrats mainly trying to avoid their wrath. Consider Obama’s record on guns, which includes one achievement: a law making it easier to carry concealed weapons in national parks.
While the violent crime rate that fed the gun control zeal of the ’90s is much lower today, horrifying mass shootings seem to be on the rise. Six of the 12 deadliest sprees in American history have taken place just since 2007. In his own remarks Friday, delivered a few hours after Carney’s, Obama seemed to hint that the latest deadly outburst might actually shake him and his party from their defensive crouch on guns. “[W]e’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of politics,” the president said.
What that means is anyone’s guess right now. It appears that the Connecticut killer used several weapons, at least one of which would be illegal if the assault weapons ban – which the Republican Congress refused to reauthorize in 2004 – were still in effect. Obama is on the record supporting the ban’s reinstatement; might he now demand action? Or will he pursue other policy changes? Or maybe he’ll just end up doing what leaders of his party have done for more than a decade now: nothing.
The Democrats’ cowardice on guns traces back to the fateful election of 2000. Clinton, despite his aggressive pursuit of gun control measures, fared relatively well with rural gun-owning populations in his 1996 reelection campaign. But those same voters turned hard on Al Gore in ’00, shifting Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee to the Republican column. A victory in any one of those states – all of which Clinton carried twice – would have made Gore president. Democrats concluded that they’d scared off rural, lower-income white voters who had traditionally supported them – and that guns were the big reason why. A new consensus emerged: Gun control could no longer be a central component of Democratic messaging. So it was that John Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008 and 2012 did their best to ignore the issue. Kerry went so far as to embark on a goose hunt in rural Ohio just before Election Day.
In terms of political strategy, there’s been one obvious shortcoming to this approach: It hasn’t worked. Kerry did no better than Gore in West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas, and Obama has failed to win any of those states in two elections now. What’s more, there’s been no improvement in Democratic support among gun owners in any election since 2000. As Nate Cohn pointed out Friday, the lesson Democrats should be drawing from Obama’s two victories is that they can win nationally without the pro-gun vote. The Democratic coalition continues to evolve and grow, and the rural white voters who were key to its success generations ago have become a reliably Republican constituency.
What’s more, Democrats continue to be painted as the party of gun confiscators by the NRA and its allies. Even though there was nothing in Obama’s first term record for them to object to, the NRA bitterly fought his reelection this year, treating him as if he were Michael Douglas’ character in “The American President.” In other words, Democrats are already paying the political price that comes with being the gun control party. So if they believe in it, why not just say it – and act on it?
The answer typically provided to this question is that there are a number of Democrats in Congress from states with large gun-owning populations – think Joe Manchin and Jon Tester – and that the party’s current posture makes it possible for them to win. But a better way of understanding the success of these Democrats is that it’s come in spite of the national party’s reputation. Democrats like Manchin and Tester are already winning over voters who believe national Democrats want to take their guns away; this challenge will be exactly the same if national Democrats actually do start pursuing gun control again.
There were a few notable Democratc voices on Friday demanding that the party recommit itself to tackling gun violence. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a Long Island Democrat who entered politics in response to her husband’s death in the ’93 LIRR tragedy, said Friday that she will be pushing “full force” for new gun laws in Obama’s second term – and that she’s willing to “embarrass” the president if necessary.
McCarthy, it should be noted, was showcased by her national party when she first ran for Congress in 1996. Her story of turning her loss into a crusade for gun control was one with which Democrats very much wanted to be associated. As her congressional career progressed, McCarthy became lonely voice, on Capitol Hill and within the Democratic Party. But the spike in mass shootings has given her a new audience and an opportunity win new allies (and to win back old ones) – and to exert real pressure on Obama to get serious. We’ll know soon enough if Obama is really feeling the heat.