How Democrats Lost on Gun Control

Gun rights advocates have been on a roll lately. Is that because Democrats gave up the fight a decade ago?
by | June 28, 2010
 

Even before today's Supreme Court ruling, gun control advocates were on the defensive in the states. Stateline had the story last week:

McDonnell signed the bill anyway, one of more than a dozen pro-gun bills Virginia approved this year; the guns-in-bars law is set to take effect next week. It was one victory for gun-rights advocates in what has been a fruitful year for them in state legislatures. Tennessee lawmakers passed a law similar to Virginia’s, over the veto of Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen. Georgia lawmakers lifted a prohibition against drinking alcohol while carrying a gun in public, and made it legal for people to carry guns in some areas of airports. And Indiana approved a measure allowing employees to take guns with them to work as long as they’re kept out of sight in a locked vehicle on a company-owned parking lot.

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Still, gun-rights advocates are feeling emboldened enough to try new tactics in the legislatures and the courts. Last year, Montana and Tennessee enacted a law called the “Firearms Freedom Act,” a measure that exempts guns and ammunition made, sold and used within the states from federal regulations. This year, the same law was passed by six more states: Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Advocates say the measure is a matter of states’ rights. The federal government has no business regulating guns and ammunition that are not part of interstate commerce, they say.

What's striking about this account is that Democrats are coming off of two blowout electoral victories in 2006 and 2008. If you'd told me in the 1990s that Democrats would have won two elections in a row, I'd have predicted a golden age for gun control backers. Gun control was one of the basic issues that divided Democrats from Republicans back then -- and a major one at that.

As we can see, that didn't happen. In conservative states, gun rights advocates keep finding new frontiers. Gun control legislation has no chance in Congress. Gun control supporters have to be content doing little more than trying to hold their ground, even in blue states.

How did this happen? The basic story is that, on gun control, Democrats stopped trying. After Al Gore's loss in the 2000 presidential election, Democrats decided that their views on gun control were a political liability. A majority of the public favored gun control, but a majority of the members of the public who actually voted on gun control didn't. Except in a few big cities where the issue had particular salience (because of gun violence problems), Democrats who believed in gun control stopped talking about it.

In some sense, that was an understandable move. If a party doesn't win elections, it can't enact any part of its policy agenda. So, candidates and parties give up on part of what they believe in order to win.

Yet only now are the full consequences of this decision clear. By not talking about gun control, Democrats undermined the movement in favor gun control. More often than not, the public cares most about the issues their political leaders say are important. In 2000, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people attended a march in Washington in favor of gun control. Would that ever happen today? Obviously, groups like the NRA have remained as focused and motivated as ever.

If there's a lesson here, it's that public opinion and political activism aren't static. Parties can choose to respond to public opinion, but they also can choose to try to shape public opinion. It would be really fascinating to know what would have happened if Democrats had kept fighting on gun control. Perhaps the party would have lost lots of elections that they won. But, perhaps they would have won some converts to their cause.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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