Democrats Are Newly Emboldened on Gun Control

In July 2001, at a meeting in Indianapolis, national Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe told party brethren that gun control was an issue they were wise to avoid. Nobody in the ballroom challenged him. The consensus at the time was that Democrats had lost the House seven years earlier, when Newt Gingrich’s GOP picked up 54 seats, because President Bill Clinton had signed a ban on the sale of assault weapons. And in 2001, many Democrats believed that Al Gore had lost the recent presidential race because southern white males had tagged him as a gun controller.

There was ample evidence that the assault-weapons ban was just one of many factors that fed the Democratic wipeout in 1994, and that Gore’s concern about gun violence (which he rarely voiced) did not trigger his defeat; in fact, he won gun-friendly Michigan and Pennsylvania. But Democrats at the turn of the century lived in terror of the NRA. And McAuliffe, in his speech—which I covered as a political reporter—seemed most concerned that his party was alienating gun owners and cultural conservatives. In his words, “We’ve got to figure this issue out.” That was code for “Let’s not talk about this issue at all.” Which helps to explain why John Kerry, during his 2004 Democratic presidential bid, dressed in duck-hunting garb to convey his respect for the gun ethos and the NRA.

But flash forward to the present day. Democrats have indeed figured the issue out—by morphing from wimps to warriors on gun reform.

Largely overlooked during the government stasis in Washington is the news that House Democrats celebrated their return to power by touting legislation to expand background checks that would cover most firearm purchases—even those made at gun shows and online. The chief sponsor, Representative Mike Thompson of California, was once a recipient of NRA money and a B+ rating from the NRA. But now he’s hailing the gun-reform bill as “a decisive step to help save lives,” with strong support “from public polling to the ballot box.”

The Democrats’ championing of gun reform is not currently a first-tier story, but a new massacre would likely make it so (although the shooting deaths Wednesday of five people in a Florida bank has barely registered). Going forward, there will be a vocal counter-narrative to the ritual Republican “thoughts and prayers,” and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this week to take a gun case that could expand Second Amendment rights will further fuel the issue. But this time the Democrats, unlike their forebears in the recent past, will not be firing blanks.

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