The progressive hope in Thursday’s special election to represent Montana’s at-large House district can be seen in an ad caressing a gun he lovingly calls “this old rifle.” In another spot, Democratic nominee Rob Quist pulls a shiny bullet from his barn coat pocket, locks and loads, and fires at a TV airing a spot questioning his Second Amendment bona fides. “I’ll protect your right to bear arms,” Quist pledges, “because it’s my right too.”
None of this is subtle, but Quist’s break with the Democratic Party platform hasn’t produced a peep from the activist left; the gun issue wasn’t even raised before MoveOn.org decided to endorse him. Are progressives knowingly practicing hard-headed electoral pragmatism? Or, as is more likely, are they ducking a divisive and frustrating issue for as long as possible, until another horrific mass shooting produces a fresh wave of outrage?
Quist is not an isolated case. Progressives celebrated the spirited run in Kansas’ fourth congressional district made by Democrat James Thompson, who brandished an assault weapon as he pledged to “fight for our personal freedoms.” They have not been bothered by Jon Ossoff’s avoidance of the gun issue in his bid to represent Georgia’s sixth congressional district. When asked about his gun control position during an online interview with a Democratic activist, Ossoff stressed that he “grew up with firearms” before airily offering his support for hypothetical legislation that would “help keep people safe and uphold the Second Amendment.” And he avoids the issue entirely on his website. (Ossoff did come out against Georgia’s new law permitting concealed weapons on public college campuses, however.)
The “big tent” mentality among progressives today only seems to apply to guns. Ideological flexibility was not on display when the Democratic National Committee and Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed an Omaha mayoral candidate with an anti-abortion voting record. NARAL Pro-Choice America excoriated the move in a blistering statement, warning the party not to turn “its back on reproductive freedom.” In response, party chair Tom Perez hastily declared that reproductive rights are “not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”
(Quist and Ossoff have both backed abortion rights, but neither may be taking much of a political risk. Libertarian-flavored Montana has a solid pro-choice majority according to a 50-state Pew Research Center poll. Georgia’s sixth district is heavily college-educated, and there is strong correlation between college degrees and support for abortion.)
Sanders also wasn’t inclined to cut Ossoff any slack regarding his economic platform. To reach right-leaning voters in his district, Ossoff emphasizes his support for “cutting wasteful spending” and does not embrace single-payer health care or free tuition. When it came to Mello, Sanders defended the endorsement on the grounds of political geography, “If you are running in rural Mississippi, do you hold the same criteria as if you’re running in San Francisco?” But when it came to Ossoff,
Sanders sniffed, “He’s not a progressive,” before belatedly offering an endorsement under duress.
NARAL and Sanders have a strong incentive to protect their agendas from Machiavellian strategists. They want to prove that their platforms are not political albatrosses in the red-state districts Democrats hope to reconquer. And they don’t want their issues to become second-class priorities, easily sacrificed when the going gets rough.
Which is exactly what is happening to gun control, and not for the first time.
Democrats have been squeamish about gun control ever since they felt the backlash to President Bill Clinton’s enactment of a ban on assault weapons and “Brady Law” background checks, which shouldered some blame for the Democratic loss of Congress in 1994. But 2000 presidential nomine Al Gore doubled down. In the wake of the 1999 Columbine massacre and a liberal primary challenge from New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, Gore ran on a robust gun control package that included a ban on cheap handguns. When he lost gun-friendly states that Clinton had won—namely Arkansas, West Virginia and his own home state of Tennessee—guns were blamed again.
Soon after, Democrats began keeping their voices down about gun control, even when mass shootings occurred. The Republican Congress let Clinton’s assault weapons ban expire without a vote, but Democrats didn’t fight exceptionally hard. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean touted his “A” rating from the NRA during the 2004 presidential primary. The nominee that year, John Kerry, futilely tried to pick off Ohio, and leaven his support for reinstating the assault weapons ban, with an October goose hunting expedition.
Downplaying gun control finally paid off for Democrats in the 2006 midterms, when four Senate candidates (in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Montana and Missouri) and more than a dozen House candidates used pro-gun rhetoric to win their seats and help the party take control of Congress. The results affirmed the strategy laid out in the 2006 book “Whistling Past Dixie” by political scientist Thomas Schaller, who argued that while “God, guns and gays” was too much for Democrats to overcome in the socially conservative South, tacking rightward on guns would earn Democrats a hearing from relatively libertarian voters in the Midwest and interior West.
Barack Obama took that cue in 2008. When the Supreme Court decreed that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, Obama said the ruling tracked his views: “I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms … I know that what works in Chicago may not work in Cheyenne.” His path to victory ran through several states with significant gun ownership: Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, Indiana and North Carolina.
The rhetorical strategy had real-world impact. Gun-shy Democrats did not pursue gun control legislation in Obama’s first term, even though those years were marked by the mass shootings at Fort Hood, Rep. Gabby Giffords’ Tucson constituent meeting and the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Seeing no reason to junk a winning game plan, Obama kept gun control out of the 2012 election, and he held on to most of his gains in the Midwest and interior West.
Then came the gut-wrenching horror of the December 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, and looking away became untenable. Obama made a fateful decision to temporarily shelve plans for a full-court press on immigration reform in favor of one on guns.
Still scarred by the past, Democrats set their sights low: They aimed to pass expanded background checks, not a fresh assault weapons ban and certainly not a handgun ban (even though 80 percent of gun deaths are from handguns.) Anti-gun activists “got smart,” according to The Atlantic, using the phrase “preventing gun violence” instead of “gun control” and showering praise on “law-abiding gun owners.” A bipartisan duo, both previously endorsed by the NRA, crafted the background check bill. Yet the effort still ran into a brick wall of NRA opposition, and four red-state Democratic senators joined most Republicans in a successful filibuster. Obama ended up with neither a gun control law nor an immigration reform law.
Republicans suffered no consequences from their obstruction, taking nine Democratically held Senate seats, mainly in red states, to win full control of Congress in the 2014 midterms. Undeterred, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton ran on the most explicitly pro-gun control platform since 2000, calculating that it would help her against Sanders in the primary and betting that Sandy Hook had changed the political equation for the general election.
It did not. As OpenSecrets reported after the 2016 election, “the NRA’s investment, which was more than any other outside group, paid for a slew of ads that directly targeted the same voters who propelled Trump to victory.”
Committed gun control activists may not be inclined to attribute Clinton’s loss to her stance on guns—after all, there were a myriad of other factors behind her loss and polls show broad support for expanded background checks. Yet there have always been strong poll numbers for specific gun control proposals, and the NRA wins time and time again. Clearly, the polling data is not giving us the full picture.
Bill Clinton delivered that warning weeks after Sandy Hook to a room of Democratic donors: “All these polls that you see saying the public is for us on all these issues — they are meaningless if they’re not voting issues.” The Arkansan further explained the cultural significance of guns in rural America, “A lot of these people … all they’ve got is their hunting and their fishing. Or they’re living in a place where they don’t have much police presence. Or they’ve been listening to this stuff for so long that they believe it all.” North Carolina’s John Edwards summed it up more succinctly during his 2004 presidential bid: “Where I come from guns are about a lot more than guns themselves. They are about independence.”
If you thought that the urbanization of America would lead to a decline in hunting culture and a loosening of our attachment to guns, you’re half right. The percent of American households with a gun has ticked down in the last 20 years from 25 percent to 22 percent. And hunting is no longer the primary reason why people buy firearms.
But the gun industry and its allies have merely changed strategies. As the New York Times explained, following a landmark study of gun ownership by Harvard and Northeastern universities last fall, “A declining rural population and waning interest in hunting have pushed gun companies to look for new customers. Industry groups have heavily marketed the idea of concealed carry and personal protection.” Now 63 percent of gun owners, gripped by fear of criminals and terrorists, cite personal protection as their rationale for exercising their Second Amendment right. There’s scant evidence that owning guns actually makes them safer. But when the NRA says even the littlest gun control measure is a step toward taking away their guns, their protection, their independence, they believe it.
Democratic operatives eager to expand the political map, and economic populists hungry to build a broad coalition, are tempted to jettison gun control all over again. And if Quist and Ossoff win, they’ll have a strong case. But are Democrats across the board really resigned to sweeping America’s gun violence problem under the rug?
The gubernatorial primary in Virginia, an increasingly suburban and diverse state with memories of the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, suggests otherwise.
In a mirror image of the 2016 presidential primary, the establishment Democrat, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, is trying to fend off a progressive insurgent, former Rep. Tom Perriello, by hitting him for past flirtations with the NRA. In 2008, Perriello was one of those pro-gun rights Democrats when he ousted a Republican incumbent in a right-leaning district. But his NRA rating didn’t protect him from his Obamacare vote and he was quickly sent home. Now running statewide, Perriello has turned on the NRA, while Northam argues his efforts for gun control measures in the wake of the Virginia Tech killings prove his credibility on the issue.
It has been easier for Quist and Ossoff to keep their distance from gun control without angering progressives because America hasn’t suffered a major mass shooting since last June’s Orlando nightclub massacre. (Public mass shootings are far from the main cause of America’s gun deaths, but they are what grabs the public’s attention.) When a mass shooting is fresh in the public mind, Democrats feel a sense of urgency. But memories can be short.
However, the lull won’t last. America didn’t go a year between public mass shootings of more than five people throughout the entire Obama presidency (including the 12-and-a-half month span between the misogynistic Isla Vista rampage of May 2014 and the racist Charleston murders of June 2015). It’s been almost a year since Orlando. There will be another.
At that point, Democrats won’t be able to sweep the gun issue under the rug. They will have to make a choice: to be or not to be the party of gun control. And if they are still going to be party committed to reducing gun violence, they had best not waste time figuring out how to do it.