Why Democrats Are Losing the Gun Debate

Progressive candidates who want to fight the gun lobby have to get past their own party’s orthodoxy first

Guns and ammo on the floor of the NRA convention at the NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits in Louisville, Kentucky, May 21, 2016. Credit: Mark Peterson/Redux

For the last couple of decades, the biggest impediment to passing sane gun laws in America hasn't been the National Rifle Association. It hasn't been the Republican Party. It hasn't been public opinion, or some weird national firearm fetish. It's been the Democratic Party.

On Tuesday, HuffPost reported that last fall, after 58 people were mass-murdered in Las Vegas, a staffer for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee quickly issued a memo warning House candidates not to "politicize" the shooting. "You and your candidate will be understandably outraged and upset, as will your community," wrote DCCC regional press secretary Evan Lukaske. "However, DO NOT POLITICIZE IT TODAY. There will be time for politics and policy discussion, but any message today should be on offering thoughts/prayers for victims and their families, and thanking 1st responders who saved lives."

This was just one memo from just one staffer. But it perfectly articulated the overweening fear that's driven Democrats to stand by – and sometimes cheer – for a quarter-century as Republicans stripped away even the most modest gun regulations. "Stand down!" has been the consistent message from the consultants who run the Democratic Party on behalf of its wealthy donors. This advice has been framed as "pragmatic" – purely a matter of winning elections. It's become conventional wisdom that the NRA is, apparently, the single most powerful political group in the history of organized democracies; any Democrat who dares to touch this "third rail" of American politics will surely be fried come Election Day. Gun control, in the view of that most conventional of Democratic wise men, James Carville, is a "loser political issue."

Democrats have run scared from the NRA since 1994, when the president Carville helped elect, Bill Clinton, championed a successful ban on assault weapons – and then, eight weeks later, saw his party lose 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate in a Republican mid-term sweep. "The fight for the assault-weapons ban cost 20 members their seats in Congress," Clinton famously said afterward. "The NRA is the reason the Republicans control the House." As former Clinton aide Ronald Klain notes at The Washington Post, this was a politically convenient thing for Clinton to say, since the real reason Democrats lost so badly was him. Clinton's first two years in office had been chaotic and ineffectual on a history-making scale: The economy was lousy, taxes had been raised, and Clinton's stab at health-care reform had been an unqualified disaster. Among the "20 members" Clinton referred to who lost because of gun control – House members outside of coastal and urban districts – most had opposed the assault-weapons ban. They weren't being punished for supporting gun control; they were being punished for being members of Clinton's party.

No matter: The myth of the NRA's mystical political powers hardened fast into conventional wisdom. It's not hard to see why: In the '90s, Clinton and the "new Democrats" were making a concerted effort to court wealthy donors and corporations in the name of being financially "competitive" in elections. Backing away from challenging the gun lobby was one sign – a powerful sign – that the Democratic Party was happy to abandon its principles to play ball with Wall Street.

Since the Parkland shooting, the Democrats in Washington have been sounding suitably fierce. "Assault weapons were made for one purpose," said Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island as he introduced the Assault Weapons Ban of 2018, which would do away with 205 specific types of firearms. "They are designed to kill as many people as possible in a short amount of time. They do not belong in our communities." Even Nancy Pelosi, who as majority leader in 2010 refused to allow a committee hearing on background checks, signed onto the ban, along with 149 other Democrats in the House. Other Democrats, all swole with outrage, have scrambled to dust off a raft of gun-control legislation that's sat on the shelf for years: expanding background checks, allowing police and family members to ask judges to disarm gun owners who show signs of violence or instability, prohibiting gun sales to people deemed too unstable to handle their own finances, raising taxes on guns and ammo, changing the gun-buying age from 18 to 21. On Wednesday, President Trump mystified Republicans and Democrats alike, calling for a "comprehensive" gun bill that's "very strong on background checks" during a meeting with congressional leaders – surprising and delighting Sen. Diane Feinstein by ordering GOP leaders to "sit down with Diane" and discuss an assault-weapons ban.

Voters support these measures, in most "red" states and districts. Of course, few reforms, if any, will get anywhere in the current Republican-controlled Congress. The real question is whether Democrats will turn America's gun madness into a campaign issue in this year's mid-terms – whether, in consultant-speak, they'll "weaponize" it nationally as a wedge issue to use against Republicans. That's no small question: It would mean that, for the first time in decades, gun control would be discussed and debated as a true political issue in the public square, rather than danced around. If one of our two political parties becomes the party of firearm sanity, the seeming impossibility of doing something – anything – about America's epidemic of gun violence will soon give way to action with broad popular support.

There's mounting evidence that gun control can be a winning issue for Democrats, rather than a political cross to carry – and not just from polls showing support for restraining gun ownership. The assumption has long been that while most Americans support gun restrictions, the only people who feel strongly enough to base their vote on the issue are NRA dittoheads. Gun-control supporters, we were told, never voted on that basis. But after last year's race for governor in Virginia, the group Everytown for Gun Safety found that among voters who said one of their top issue was guns, 57 percent voted for Democrat Ralph Northam – a complete reversal of the old assumptions.

So the tide is turning, right? Democrats are finally ready to swallow hard, square their shoulders, and champion an issue that's a clear winner at the polls, yes? Not necessarily. Old habits of cowardice die hard in Washington. On Tuesday, as congressional Democrats prepared to meet and talk about gun-control strategy, the party's poobahs – the consultants who run things on behalf of the donors – started to push back in characteristic fashion. An anonymous "former Democratic leadership aide" told The Hill on Tuesday that Democrats were headed for trouble by taking up gun control. "It's one of those fundamental issues that riles up American politics – it's up there with abortion and immigration – and they need to be very careful," he warned. "If a Democratic candidate, or the party as a whole, overextends on this issue, then it becomes incredibly easy for the Republicans to play that up in a lot of districts."

This is precisely the kind of cautionary talk that has stifled Democrats for two decades – and that, more than any other political factor, bears responsibility for letting that AR-15 get into the hands of the Parkland gunman. And even in a political moment where every star is aligned for progressivism – with a wildly unpopular president and an even less popular Republican Party – it's likely to have a shushing effect on at least some of the Democratic congressional candidates who can't win without DCCC support.

The gun issue now symbolizes the larger struggle for control of the Democratic Party in the wake of Hillary Clinton's defeat in 2016. The wealthy centrists who took control of the party during the Bill Clinton years won't give up their privileges without a fight, as they showed last week by trying to quash a congressional candidate running in a Democratic primary in Texas, Laura Moser (no relation to the author), for being too liberal. Moser's specific sin wasn't calling for gun control, though she does; it was protesting publicly when the DCCC announced last year it would support Democrats who oppose abortion rights.

But the DCCC sent a strong signal with its attempt to eviscerate Moser's campaign: The party leadership clearly won't hesitate to throw even its own candidates under the bus when they veer from the centrist script. The Democrats have made it equally clear that they won't be "nationalizing" gun control as an issue in 2018, even if it could help them win. Just as some Americans "cling to their guns or religion," as Barack Obama put it, the Democratic Party clings to its donor-friendly politics with cold, dead hands. That doesn't mean gun control is a hopeless cause. The Parkland students who've stirred a national movement aren't running for office (yet); they don't need campaign funds from Washington. And these kids have emboldened – or, in some cases, shamed – individual Democrats, if not the party itself, to find their own voices.