Ralph Fascitelli’s recent piece in Crosscut, critical of Democrats for wimping out on gun control deserves a candid response. As a lead sponsor on a number of gun bills over the past 15 sessions in Olympia, I guess I’m the guy to give it.
By selective use of historical references to the 1994 midterm Congressional elections and the 2000 presidential election, Ralph paints a picture of Democrats losing the former by poor policy discipline and the latter by poor campaigning. In Ralph’s portrayal, neither loss had anything to do with the Democrats’ efforts in 1994 to ban assault weapons — a view that would have definitely surprised a young Eastern Washington Congressman named Jay Inslee, and his colleagues Maria Cantwell and Mike Kriedler, three of some 29 House Democrats, four of them from the Washington State delegation, who took that gutsy vote and promptly lost their seats. The fourth was the Speaker of the House, Tom Foley—an almost unprecedented loss. By contrast, only five Congressional Democrats who voted No
lost their seats. What does this tell us?
We mountain climbers have a saying: “There are bold climbers, and there are old climbers, but there are no old bold climbers.” We learn to pick our routes carefully if we want to live to climb another day.
Here’s the crux of Ralph’s argument: “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.”
And here’s the truth: There is no organization on our side in Olympia that can do for us what the NRA does for our pro-gun colleagues; that can gin up the support, generate the letters to the editors of every hometown paper, get the folks in our districts to circulate petitions and call and write and visit our district offices, get the back-stories of gun violence on the TV news, bring surviving victims to visit with editorial boards, bring the home folks to Olympia to pack the room at legislative hearings, raise funds to hire the consultants and wordsmiths to help target the sensitive races and frame the message and run the outside game. There is no one to organize this state’s willing and wealthy donors to fund independent expenditures and cut maximum checks to those suburban and rural Democrats for whom any gun bill is a tough vote—and yes, any Republican gutsy enough to buck his or her caucus—so that we legislators can get the job done. CeaseFire has little if any capacity for this unglamorous work. It prefers to release position papers and go on TV.
I don’t ask for an equal-but-opposite organization, an anti-NRA golem of equal firepower and caliber. I’ll settle for an organization whose leaders are willing to do the nuts-and-bolts organizational work and tedious fundraising over the years that would build something a small fraction of that size. All I want is some folks with the political sophistication to know what help politicians need, and to give it to the right ones. Really, just some folks who understand the metaphor of politics as battle, and are willing to supply the troops. When Ralph and others founded CeaseFire some years back, that’s what I thought it would be. When, more recently, I saw that it wasn’t, I asked Ralph to change course. We’ve had this conversation several times.
CeaseFire doesn’t supply the troops; it rails at them for refusing to engage more frequently in a battle for which they are ill-supplied. Ralph’s understanding is that because the cause is just, the votes are there. Static poll-data showing popular support is brought forward to assure this. Never mind that polling data changes quickly under a barrage of ads — the NRA has millions for ads; CeaseFire doesn’t. This is not a degree of political sophistication that assures even the most courageous soldier. And Ralph’s favorite target in Olympia is Speaker Frank Chopp, the general whose respect for his troops, and whose broader view of the many other battles they have to live to fight, restrains him from committing them to this currently one-sided battle. (I can say this; I was the one urging him to action.)
The Speaker’s reticence was supported by a strong argument, and one needn’t agree with it in order to recognize its coherence. The NRA thrives on weak challenges; it sees them as fundraising opportunities. Its supporters are ready to believe that any gun bill — no matter how rational its purpose or how minor its scope — is a threat to God-given and constitutionally protected rights, and will contribute generously, giving the organization not only the psychological momentum of a win, but likely a surplus as well. It is up to us to choose our battles wisely.
The way it works in this democracy is that we legislators represent our constituents. We can get a majority of our colleagues on an issue when enough of us sense that the people are there, or almost there, or at least going there, and that we may have to push them there, but at the end of the day our risk will not have been wasted. The work of moving public opinion on an issue cannot be done by legislators alone, whose work makes us generalists, but must be done by the activists who care particularly about that issue.
This co-relationship is an outgrowth of democracy’s core premise: that an educated electorate will debate freely and demand action. However populist it may seem these days to blame “politicians,” it is not effective activism to refuse to help in the ways that matter, and then to publicly criticize legislators for failing to do it by themselves.
Washingtonians who seek more rational gun laws are invited to report for duty to CeaseFire, to join up, to make themselves heard, and to demand serious leadership. Until that happens, the organization will continue to simply occupy its political space, and its officials will make public statements, giving an impression that something is being done about guns.
Adam Kline is the state senator from the 37th Legislative District in Southeast Seattle, and currently Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.