After years of arguing that Democrats should be willing to bear the political costs — lost votes in the South, in particular — of gun control measures, advocates Saturday began cautiously to make a different case. Gun control leaders and other progressive figures told BuzzFeed that, whether or not Democrats can get new legislation through Congress, they should be winning elections on the issue of guns.
Gun regulation "is moving to the center, and past it,” said Jim Kessler, who helped Sen. Charles Schumer pass gun control policy in the 1990s before founding the D.C. think tank, Third Way.
“For the first time in decades, Republicans are losing on social issues — they’re losing on same-sex marriage, they’re losing on contraception, and now they could lose on guns because their position is so intractable,” said Kessler. “Except for a vocal minority, people know and expect that something can be done.”
“It’s not that Democrats could do it and make some political gains,” added Mike Lux, founder of the consulting firm Progressive Strategies, and a former aide to President Bill Clinton. “It’s that they have to do it. It’s not only the base, it’s now the American people. They better damn well do it, or people will say what on earth is going on.”
President Obama Friday promised vague "meaningful action" and other political leaders, most vocally New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, have gone further, demanding specific regulations on the most dangerous weapons.
Advocates are now making a new case to Democratic congressional leaders in a language they can easily understand: That if Republicans block legislation — an almost inevitable outcome in the House of the Representatives — that fight could save Democrats from a repeat of the disastrous 2010 midterm elections.
If Republicans block gun measures, "our job is to make sure there’s a consequence and that they’re being held accountable by the public for stifling progress," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Republicans, under this theory, are caught in a trap between the powerful National Rifle Association's uncompromising demands, crucial to primarily politics, and the more moderate view of the general electorate.
“Republicans aren’t going to go against the NRA,” said Lux. “They will absolutely block it, and it’s going to look very bad for them, but their politics are such that they are far more worried about a primary from the right than they are at looking unreasonable to the general public.”
But Kessler added that fighting and losing could only take Democrats so far, and holds out hope for a deal.
“That scenario would work for them politically, but I’m more of the view that you win by getting something done, not just by talking about it.”
President Obama contemplated, and rejected, action on guns after earlier shootings, The New York Times reported Saturday. On the campaign trail — even after the shooting in Aurora, Colo., that left 12 dead — the president rarely spoke about gun legislation. The hope among advocates, is that the president’s “political calculus is different now than it ever has been before,” said Matt Bennett, a former Clinton aide who co-founded Third Way.
But Democrats have a long history of avoiding a confrontation on guns that could further alienate some of the white men Bill Clinton fought to retain. Since Vice President Al Gore’s failed presidential bid in 2000 — when he lost West Virginia and his home state of Tennessee — Democrats feared they had lost their hold on the rural vote.
“Bill Clinton has said he thought that Al Gore lost in 2000 because he went too far left on guns,” said Kessler.
Obama was elected, by contrast, with a national coalition that relied less on white men and wrote off Appalachian white voters and the states they dominate.
Bennett said the response Friday from donors and supporters of Third Way is “like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” he said. “The magnitude of the horror of this is so overwhelming that people can’t wrap their heads around it.”
But for Democrats to make a concentrated legislative push, Bennett added, “it would require that this would end up being a pretty fundamentally different tragedy than the ones we’ve had lately.
"No one would have argued that in the wake of those past tragedies a push for new gun laws would have helped Democrats politically, but this time there’s a different possibility," he said.
Ruby Cramer is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Ruby Cramer at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.