Guest opinion: Democrats incorrectly fear that gun control is a poisonous issue to push. The NRA's clout is less than it seems.
Editors' note: This article was originally published Sept. 26, 2012. We are reposting on our home page in light of the massacre at a Connecticut school today (Dec. 14).
If anyone watched this year’s presidential conventions, you would have been hard pressed to hear even the slightest mention of guns or gun control. Indeed, the only official word on the subject was in the Republican platform, which expressly forbids the party from supporting any legislation that would reduce the maximum number of bullets in a magazine clip.
Of all things to have in a party platform, this may have set a new standard of insensitivity, given that high-capacity magazine clips were a prime reason for the horrifically high body count at the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting this summer.
More surprising is that Democrats, the party of progressive stands on social issues, said nothing about gun control even after the rash of tragedies in Colorado, Wisconsin, and in Washington state. The timid Democratic response was painful to witness after the near-fatal shooting of one of their own congresswomen less than two years ago, along with the fatal shooting of the husband of another congresswoman over a decade ago on a Long Island train.
Gun violence, which costs this country as much as a $100 billion annually and is perhaps along with obesity the number one public health issue of our time, was put on mute again.
The Democrats believe that their effort to ban assault weapons in 1994 resulted in the Republican takeover of Congress that year. They also believe that Al Gore’s public support of reasonable gun control cost him Tennessee and the presidency in 2000. It is a self-serving, accepted-as-gospel argument that the NRA and other gun rights group are only too happy to endorse and perpuate. Except history and the facts suggest the correlation is wrong.
In 1992, Bill Clinton won a three-party race for president with just 43 percent of the vote. Despite being a southerner, the Democratic candidate won only four of 11 Confederate states that year.
In his first two years in office, Clinton spent a lot at time on a variety of progressive issues including the rights of gays in the military, an unsuccessful push for universal health care and a successful push to ban semi-automatic, military-style, assault weapons. During this time, President Clinton was also forced to endure a special investigation into alleged improprieties involving the so-called Whitewater land purchase and rumors surrounding the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel and Clinton family friend Vince Foster.
The 1994 mid-term election was a resounding win for the Republicans who took over both the House and the Senate — the first time since 1953 that the Republicans controlled both legislative branches. The successful campaign was led by future House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who famously promoted a 10-point plan to “take back the country” to its basic founding principles, entitled: The Contract with America. Significantly, nothing in “The Contract” mentioned guns or gun control or a repeal of the recently passed, assault weapons ban.
Al Gore ran for President as a native son of Tennessee. The Vice President may have been an official resident of the state, but he was born and raised and spent most of his life in Washington, D.C. While most Tennesseans identified with the self-made life story of his senator father, the straight-laced and Harvard-educated Al Junior did not hold the same level of affection with the Tennessee citizenry
Tennessee has evolved over the past 36 years into a solid red state for the Republicans. No Democratic candidate for president, even Clinton, has received more than 48 percent of the vote in Tennessee since 1976. Gore got 47 percent of the vote in 2000. That was still six points better than John Kerry received four years later, despite Kerry’s catering to the gun rights crowd, with a well-publicized pheasant shoot during the campaign.
In 2000, Tennessee was about as red as it gets. It had a Republican governor and two Republican senators. Not only was the state anti-gun, it was also anti-gay rights, anti-abortion, anti-union, anti-universal health care, anti-immigration etc. It didn’t help that the Democrats took the state for granted in 2000 and gave more time and committed more advertising to other toss-up states.
It wasn’t guns in 1994 and 2000 that cost the Democrats. Indeed, national polls at the time showed overwhelming support for both closing the assault weapons ban and closing the gun show loophole.
By calling out guns as the reason for their defeat, the Democrats were able to shift blame from their own internal management problems — be it a lack of policy discipline in 1994 or poor campaigning in 2000. Gore lost Tennessee by a healthy margin, 51 percent to 47 percent. The gun guys, as they always do, were going to vote Republican. No one would argue that the “aw-shucks, good ole boy” persona of George Bush in 2000 played much better to the average Tennessean than the stiff and intellectual Gore.
It wasn’t guns then that cost Democrats the elections of 1994 and 2000 and it isn’t guns now. States like Tennessee and West Virginia are not where presidential elections are going to be won or lost. Republicans are going to win the voters who are tried-and-true members of the NRA. And as Kerry showcased in 2004, no amount of pandering to the gun-rights crowd is going to sway their vote.
The NRA is a strong lobby but hardly all powerful. Research by The Brady Campaign has shown that candidates backed by the NRA have lost 72 percent of their races over the past three election cycles. NRA support didn’t help John McCain or Bob Dole, nor is it likely to help Mitt Romney or even the group's favorite son, Paul Ryan.
Democrats to their detriment and disgrace have ignored the gun issue because they wrongly viewed it as a lost cause — faulty thinking that has hurt them in energizing their base, and contributed to additional bloodshed in our streets. President Obama has seen first-hand the payback for bold leadership in supporting gay marriage.
Since the year 2000, some 1.2 million families representing almost 3 million voters have been affected by gun violence. These families along with a majority of Americans will support a leader that pushes forward on common-sense gun control measures for the good of their party and the public good.