The realpolitiks of gun control

The Senate vote to allow debate on gun control legislation shows how much the Newtown school shooting changed the national discussion on guns. The Senate’s failure to end debate  and allow a final vote on the bill showed the politics of gun control remained the same.

The body failed muster the 60 votes to end debate a allow final votes on a series of gun measures just a week after 68 Senators voted to allow debate on the compromise bill to begin. The gun control measures included a proposal to close loopholes that prevent background checks of people who buy firearms at gun shows and over the internet.

The background check compromise failed despite being hammered out by two pro-firearms Senators – Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.). Toomey-Manchin failed despite opinion polls that show 90 percent of Americans approve of the compromise. President Obama and family members of children killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre assailed those voting against the compromise. Obama accused the National Rifle Association of “willfully lying” about the bill’s key elements.

Obama singled out claims that the compromise would force a father to conduct a background check if he wanted to sell or give a weapon to his son as untrue. The president and commentators such as Joe Scarborough called the no voting Senators NRA puppets.

Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vowed to reintroduce the bills, but gun control is dead. Issues such as immigration reform, the budget and terrorism top the legislative agenda. Senate passage would send the bill to certain defeat in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives,

So it’s easy to understand the disappointment of gun control supporters. They lost in Congress again, and that makes it hard for them to see what they won. Background check supporters won a chance for gun control to be an election issue in 2014 and 2016.

I see why they might not see that as a victory. Nothing sends Democrats into a fetal position like facing off against the NRA in an election. It is an article of faith that passage of the 1994 assault weapon ban played a big role in Al Gore’s defeat in the 2000 election. LIberals can bring up the Florida recount. However, Gore would have been president if he carried New Hampshire or, Tennessee or Arkansas. Pundits think his party’s stance on guns cost Gore votes in those three states.

The NRA‘ has a reason to be confident. Democrats rely on the testimonials of survivors of gun violence or the family members of those killed such as Sandy Hook mother Francine Wheeler to sway public opinion.
However, gun control supporters are kidding themselves if they believe moral suasion will carry the day in gun control debate. Pro-gun groups ground their opposition to gun-control in the constitution. However, it’s fair to ask why the NRA should cede ground that the other side is incapable of taking. Anti-gun control advocates say that their side has won every election over the past 30 years in which gun policy was an issue.
 If gun control advocates want to break the NRA’s grip on Congress, they must win elections in swing states such as Iowa, Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire and Florida. Obama won them all in 2008 and 2012. If pro gun control legislators lose ground in those states, the NRA can rightfully say that voters agree with them.  If pro-gun control legislators win state and federal elections, the political class will   notice.

The immigration debate provides a template. Prior to 2012, anti-immigration reform advocates on the left and right prevented action by Congress. Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates embraced nativist policies. Obama won three-fourths of the Hispanic vote in 2012 and GOP Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham are leading a bi-partisan push for comprehensive immigration reform.

What remains to be seen is whether the gun control advocates will show the type of leadership indicating their willingness to really have a debate on this issue. That means they will have to match  the NRA’s fund raising and lobbying efforts. At least one gun control advocate, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is willing to do just that.

Still, many gun control advocates treat lobbying like its a sin. They assail Supreme Court rulings such as Citizen’s United. Complaining about the rules is not leadership. If gun control advocates get outspent 10 to 1, it is likely that any new gun control legislation will meet the fate of Toomey-Manchin. And gun control supporters will only have themselves to blame.


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