Sunday, February 3, 2013


In the aftermath of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, gun control is again fashionable on the left. The Internet meme is simple but hackneyed: all we need to do is stay true blue liberal and make a lot of noise and we will get everything we want. If only it were that simple; comparing the hurdles the Brady Law had to clear is instructive because we face many of those same hurdles today.  We are in for a long, hard fight.

Modern gun control has its roots in the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981, in which press secretary James Brady was grievously wounded. John Hinckley, Reagan’s would-be assassin, had purchased the gun used in the assault from a Texas pawn shop using an expired driver's license, a classic case of “lie and buy.” The incident led to a cry for background checks, and a check on Hinckley’s would have proved  revealing:  he had a history of mental illness and had a previous arrest  for attempting to carry three handguns aboard an American Airlines flight in Nashville.  Even President Reagan was moved to support background checks. Still, early attempts to tighten laws failed. Jim Brady and his wife Sarah entered the fray in 1985, when, frustrated with Congressional inaction, Sarah joined the board of directors of Handgun Control, Inc.  Even so, it was not until 1993 that a Democratic Congress in the first Clinton Administration, with bipartisan support, passed the Brady Law and an assault weapons ban.

And then came the backlash.

Even though the Brady Law was passed when the nation’s crime rate was stratospherically high, it was virulently unpopular across middle America. In the 1994 midterm election, Democrats lost 54 seats and the GOP took control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954. Gun control was not the only, or even the most important issue that year, but it nonetheless played a major role in defeating a dozen House Democrats in the heartland, as President Clinton points out in his memoir, My Life:

 “After the [1994 midterm] election  I had to face the fact that the law enforcement groups and other supporters of responsible gun legislation, though they represented the majority of Americans, simply could not protect their friends in Congress from the NRA. The gun lobby outspent, outorganized, outfought, and outdemagogued them.” [Clinton: My Life 630]

What almost everyone forgets is that the LEFT also abandoned gun control.  In 2004, Americans for Jobs, HealthCare, and Progressive Values, a Democratic 527 Independent Expenditure political organization, ran the following television ad during the primary campaign:

“…two men have been given top grades by the National Rifle Association. One is George Bush. The other might surprise you. It's Howard Dean.”

In our fond memories of the guy who represented the “Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party” we remember Dean's willingness to take tough stands. But we forget that on gun control, Dean's strategy was to back pedal from the Democratic Party position on gun control in hopes of reaching beyond the progressive base to build a bridge to “Reagan Democrats”. On the campaign trail, Governor Dean often boasted of his A grades from the National Rifle Association while Governor of Vermont.  Most progressives approved; after suffering through Bush’s first term, the left was hungry to recapture the White House and didn’t give gun control a second thought. In 2013, it’s easy to call Democratic leaders of the time cowards, and easy to forget the crop of House Democrats dispatched to the unemployment lines by the NRA’s vicious campaign machine over the past 15 years.  But that ignores history.

Once the Democrats abandoned gun control, it languished and the assault weapons ban expired with little fanfare. In the aftermath of Newtown, we need to learn the lessons of the past: the Brady Law required high-powered bi-partisan support (from the likes of Ronald Reagan!), and the NRA is enraged and well-poised to unseat Congressional Democrats.

But isn't it different this time? Hasn't Newtown changed the political landscape?


I’m not calling for surrender on the issue, but we need to be realistic. This will be VERY hard. We need to lobby with tools exponentially more powerful than email-based petitions that targeted lawmakers don't read and we need to understand that passing around clever little meme cartoons on Facebook that make us feel righteous are just an impotent waste of time. Seriously, how many swing legislators hang out on your Home Page? We cannot expect the President and Congress to do all the work for us and we cannot expect elected officials to ignore the threat the NRA represents at the ballot box. We WILL need bipartisan support; we will not convince every red state Democrat to vote for new gun control measures. Sure, this is irksome, but that does not make it any less true.

It took twelve years after the Reagan assassination to get the first round of legislation, and we are facing similar hurdles:

Support for gun control plummeted when President Obama took office, even as the issue was little discussed.  Since Newtown, support for more regulation is back, at least temporarily, with recent Gallup poll showing 91% support for background checks and 89% in the latest Washington Post Poll. But President Obama has served as a polarizing influence on the issue. The same Washington Post Poll found 72% of Republicans disapproved of President Obama's gun control plan. So, they support the measures but hate the messenger, making comprehensive reform very difficult to enact.

The demographic distribution of conservative and liberal voters hurts. While we pile up in the big cities (President Obama carried the 630,000 residents of DC in 2012 with 93% of the vote) conservative majorities of 2 or 3 or 5 percent prevail in a great many US House Districts in the American heartland. We  have the majority of public opinion on our side but that public opinion resides in a decidedly minority number of US House Districts. If you drive from New York City to Los Angeles, you'll pass through a couple of wildly Democratic House Districts but dozens of Districts where conservatives consistently win, if by narrow margins.

In the Senate, the rural red states will pose a host of problems. Senator Harry Reid, staring down a slew of Democratic Senate retirements, and in fear of losing the Senate to the GOP, appears unwilling to even bring an assault weapons ban to the floor. Again, before we cast stones at Senator Reid, we need to take a long, hard, adult look at the “whip count.” Currently, Reid can expect "no" votes on a weapons ban from Democrats in states where guns are thought of as more fun than frightening: Mark Begich (Alaska), Max Baucus  and Jon Tester (Montana), Heidi Heidtkamp (North Dakota), Angus King (Maine), Joe Manchin III (West Virginia), and moderate Republican, Susan Collins (Maine). To pass a law in the Senate you don’t need 50 votes, you really need 60--even without the filibuster, the chances of mustering 51 Democrats is grim. And that is in the Democratically controlled Senate. A whip count in the GOP House portends far more dismal returns.

Prepare for a fight that will likely last a lot longer than a couple of months! In my next post, I'll lay out what I think could be the start of a successful lobbying campaign.

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