National Democrats' misguided re-embrace of gun control

It costs votes and doesn't produce any gun control

Merry Thanksgiving Eve!

Hope everyone manages to have a fun and safe holiday tomorrow.

My plan was to keep things pretty wonkish this week and then stir the pot next week, but I couldn’t resist. Something I’ve thought for a while is that Democrats were wise to have abandoned gun control as an issue between John Kerry’s defeat and Barack Obama’s re-election. And whatever you thought of the idea of returning to the topic in 2013, at this point enough time has passed that we can say definitively that it hasn’t worked.

The juice here just isn’t worth the squeeze.

After 2004 Democrats backed away from gun control

Back a bit over a decade ago when I worked at the Center for American Progress there were certain issues CAP didn’t really work on. Some of that was just a lack of funding or staff interest but there was no rule against trying to go get the funding if you were interested. The two big exceptions to that were trade, which was seen as too divisive in the Democratic Party, and guns, where the feeling was that post-2004 Democrats had decided that this was not an issue worth losing votes over.

That analysis had a few parts to it:

  1. Even gun regulation measures that poll well did not seem to really motivate voters while opposition to gun regulations was clearly motivating.

  2. The kinds of gun control measures that poll well are not the kind of thing that would significantly move the needle in terms of US gun deaths — the high-profile mass shootings that spark these conversations are statistically rare and generally don’t involve shooters who would’ve flunked universal background checks.

  3. The pro-gun forces are advantaged by the geography of the US Senate, so the outlook for federal action on even popular-but-ineffective measures is bad.

  4. Related to (1), most progressives themselves did not think this was a particularly important issue compared to universal health care, climate change, immigration reform, and abortion rights. Nor did they consider it as urgent as fiscal stimulus and financial regulation.

In summary, it did not make sense to risk losing votes over measures that were unlikely to be adopted and unlikely to make a huge difference even if they were adopted.

Of course lots of institutions don’t talk about gun control — the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities doesn’t, the Economic Policy Institute doesn’t — but CAP’s silence had a special significance. The institution was (and is!) a hub of consensus center-left thinking across the issue space. Their non-discussion of the issue was part of a larger consensus across the party network that it was fine for big city mayors or Dianne Feinstein to be passionate about gun regulation, but most national organizations were going to try to keep the issue off the agenda.

That strategy of agenda-suppression largely worked across the 2006 and 2008 cycles. It largely delivered its intended electoral benefits. Democrats ran vocally pro-gun nominees in jurisdictions where that seemed appropriate, and national leaders basically didn’t talk about guns so it was not a salient part of the party brand. Barack Obama participated in this consensus through his 2012 re-election campaign — to the point of very much not calling for gun control in the wake of high-profile mass shootings. Then came Sandy Hook, which was horrifying and happened to arrive at the very peak of liberal hubris about cultural issues right in the wake of Obama’s win. Progressives re-engaged with the issue, and Pat Toomey (a conservative Republican from a state Obama won) and Joe Manchin (one of the vocal pro-gun Democrats) wrote a bill that while not particularly consequential would, if it passed, have signaled a breaking of the pro-gun consensus in Washington.

It was a calculated risk and it didn’t pay off. The Manchin-Toomey bill failed, and all four of the elements of the circa 2008 consensus turned out to still be true.

Given that reality, it makes sense for people who care passionately about other issues to try to swim back to that old approach.

Democrats used to have a different approach on guns

Georgia has become a swing state thanks to population growth in the Atlanta suburbs, the growing Democratic-tilt of college educated suburbanites, and ongoing efforts to mobilize African-American voters.

John Barrow was a Democrat who won election to the House of Representatives from a majority-white Georgia district back in 2004. It was a different political era when rural white southerners were less GOP-leaning than suburban ones, so it was possible for a moderate Democrat to put together a winning coalition of African-Americans and rural working class whites. This obviously got harder for Barrow over time and he lost in 2014 as part of an overall dismal year for Democrats all across the country. But he won reelection in 2012 with things like this ad touting his support for the NRA and even putting what today we would call a “woke” gloss on pro-gun politics.

This is a very different era of gun politics, but the point is that it wasn’t that long ago or anything. You guys remember Barack Obama, right? He was president then.

Part of the point was to highlight a contrast with rural Georgians’ impression of what a Democrat is like. But Barrow’s approach wasn’t unique. You can find similar ads from Joe Manchin, Max Baucus, and Mark Begich.

A more recent ad from Jason Kander in the 2016 cycle is stylistically similar in that he’s touting his prowess with firearms, but the content is totally different — Kander is explaining why even a gun person like him can back gun control. The ads I’m talking about are just Democrats bragging about supporting gun rights. Back when Rahm Emanuel ran the DCCC in 2006 and 2008 he had a deliberate strategy of recruiting pro-gun candidates to run in right-of-center districts (the Trace had a good piece recently about the rise and fall of NRA-endorsed Democrats).

That of course wasn't the mainstream Democratic approach at the time. But what mainstream Democrats did do was try to minimize the salience of the gun issue in national politics. There was no progressive push for gun legislation in 2009-2010 that the Barrows of the world then had to vote against.

Most tellingly of all, I think, after the movie theater massacre in Aurora in July 2012, Obama gave a speech that, while eloquent, amounts to just “thoughts and prayers.”

So, again, I am so grateful that all of you are here.  I am so moved by your support.  But there are going to be other days for politics.  This, I think, is a day for prayer and reflection.

So what I’d ask everybody to do, I’d like us to pause in a moment of silence for the victims of this terrible tragedy, for the people who knew them and loved them, for those who are still struggling to recover, and for all the victims of less publicized acts of violence that plague our communities every single day.  So if everybody can just take a moment.

Thank you, everybody.  I hope all of you will keep the people of Aurora in your hearts and minds today.  May the Lord bring them comfort and healing in hard days to come.

I am grateful to all of you, and I hope that as a consequence of today’s events, as you leave here, you spend a little time thinking about the incredible blessings that God has given us.

Thank you very much, everybody.  God bless you.  God bless the United States of America. 

Emanuel’s reputation with progressives is in the toilet these days thanks to initially withholding key evidence in the Laquan McDonald case. And some of his advice as Obama’s first White House Chief of Staff was bad. In general, he’s a pretty uninteresting thinker whose idea — to the extent that there is one — is always that Democrats should choose the more conservative option. But just like how a stopped clock is sometimes right, the conservative faction of the party was right about this.

Critically, they were right about the fact that gun control advocacy would not generate any gun control gains.

The dual turning points: Sandy Hook

This all changed after Sandy Hook.

One reason is that the massacre there was horrifying. But Aurora was also horrifying, albeit perhaps somewhat less so. Another factor is that the political context had changed. Obama’s ability to secure reelection despite what were still difficult economic times was widely attributed to the appeal of cultural liberalism in an increasingly diverse America. Knowing what we now know about the 2016 and 2020 elections the idea that Obama carried not just Wisconsin but also Iowa and Ohio on the basis of cosmopolitanism seems risible — he painted Mitt Romney as an out of touch private equity guy who wanted to cut Medicare.

But, the ascendancy of cultural liberalism was the dominant theme in post-election spin, so when Sandy Hook happened six weeks after the election, Obama had a new message:

We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

But that can't be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.

In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can't accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

Nothing about guns and gun violence had changed in the five months since Aurora. But Obama flipped from “there are going to be other days for politics” to “I will use whatever power this office holds … in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”

The upshot of this was the Manchin-Toomey background check bill, which I think is a totally reasonable idea on the merits. But there’s no reason to think it would have stopped Adam Lanza (who shot his mother and stole her Bushmaster XM-15) from going on his rampage. And it didn’t pass. And Republican opposition to the bill was not a potent issue in the subsequent election. All the points of the original formula for skepticism were correct. Mild gun control proposals poll well. But they don’t motivate voters. They don’t pass Congress. And even if they did pass they wouldn’t address the problem they are designed to address.

The politics of guns are rough

Colin McAuliffe, the co-founder of Data for Progress, wrote a really good report on the difficult politics of the gun issue back in 2019.

But I think he soft-pedaled the takeaways a little bit to make the memo palatable to a left-inclined audience. The key thing he shows is that while a handful of small-bore gun reforms poll well, the abstract proposition that making America into a more gun-controlled society is unpopular and it’s very unpopular when you consider the skewed senate map.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a politician who’s asked about it saying he wants to close the gun show loophole. But when push comes to shove, there is no political upside for progressives in having a high-profile national debate about whether it’s important to protect gun rights or whether the time has come to say “enough.”

The fact that thoughtful progressives actually have serious doubts on civil liberties grounds about the no-fly list idea (which has due process problems) and the mental illness idea (which is very stigmatizing and seems overly broad if you think about what's a large share of the population has some kind of mental health issues) only makes this worse.

Last but by no means least, there’s reason to believe this background checks stuff is less popular than it seems. In Maine, for example, they held a referendum on closing the gun show loophole and it lost 52-48 even as Clinton won the state by three points. There’s wisdom in looking at ballot initiatives, and the evidence seems to be that gun regulation runs behind the Democratic Party even in one of the few rural states where Democrats are competitive.

It’s also probably not a coincidence that Bernie Sanders was a gun rights supporter for the vast majority of his career in a rural state. That became an issue, of course, in the 2016 primary, when Hillary Clinton was glad to have a topic where she could get to his left. Sanders initially offered a version of my argument in his defense — you can’t build a broad working class majority while deriding a popular working class hobby. But after he lost in 2016, he rebooted his campaign for the 2020 cycle as less strictly focused on economic populism and more about taking the furthest-left position on every issue. That led to a much worse primary performance as culturally moderate Democrats who’d preferred him to Clinton voted for Biden instead. But centrists’ success in wielding the gun issue against Sanders has preventing them from reclaiming their heritage as proponents of shutting up about guns.

And yet in a maddening way, the measures progressives are proposing would not address the policy issue that progressives claim is morally urgent.

Effective gun control would have to be extreme

Here’s the deal: There are about 40,000 firearms deaths per year in the United States and if you could make them go away that would be great.

But a majority of those deaths are suicides. And the homicides are mostly committed by normal, inexpensive easily concealed handguns, not by scary assault weapons. Where do the guns come from? In a 2016 report for the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Mariel Alper and Lauren Glaze look at a survey of prison inmates and found that 21 percent of all federal and state prisoners said they had a firearm when they committed the offense for which they were serving time in prison. Of those incarcerated gun owners, just “seven percent had purchased it under their own name from a licensed firearm dealer.”

The largest share (43 percent) said they bought the gun on the black market. Another 25 percent say they got it from family or friends.

None of this is to deny that gun control laws could drastically reduce the incidence of firearms death. You might think that potential suicides would just substitute some other means of killing themselves, but research does not bare that out. If fewer guns were around, then fewer people would kill themselves. By the same token, you definitely could drain the swamp of illegally circulating firearms. But the way you would accomplish these things would be by drastically reducing the number of legally owned guns around. Stricter background checks for new purchases just aren’t going to significantly change the situation.

The United Kingdom has drastically fewer gun assaults than we do and that has a lot of benefits. Not only are innocent lives saved, but it allows their police to operate largely unarmed which would greatly ameliorate a tangled nexus of American social problems around racism and police use of force. But the UK didn’t get there with really rigorous background checks, it got there by making civilian ownership of guns mostly illegal.

What’s more: Gun enthusiasts are aware of this. So when progressives talk about the tragedy of gun deaths in America, it doesn’t matter if their actual proposal is a very mild tweak to background checks. When you define “the problem” as gun deaths, you are pushing toward a drastic solution that gun hobbyists don’t want, and they are highly motivated to vote against you.

Last call for alcohol

Even if talking about gun regulation leads to electoral defeats rather than to the adoption of gun regulation, some people won’t be satisfied. Don’t we need to say the right thing? To be true to our beliefs?

If you’re feeling moralistic about this, I’d point to the case of alcohol. There were over 70,000 alcohol-related deaths in the United States in 2017, the most recent year that data was available for. Alcohol is involved in a majority of intimate partner assaults, and over a third of murders and sexual assaults. It’s addictive, obviously, as well as being bad for your liver. But critically the impaired judgment induced by alcohol can lead to very serious problem behavior even on the part of people who are not alcoholics.

But while there are plenty of people calling for higher taxes on alcohol, nobody is mystified or indignant that few politicians back this.

Drinking alcohol is a widely enjoyed hobby in the United States and people would prefer not to pay more for it. Personally, I agree with the case for higher booze taxes. And I very seriously think that any time a state finds itself in a budget crisis where it needs to do something or other that’s unpopular, wonks should show up with our reams of studies indicating that higher alcohol taxes are an unpopular idea that’s actually good. Maybe some day there will be an urgent need for the federal government to raise more revenue and, again, higher alcohol taxes would be a very compelling way to do that.

But in terms of moral urgency, alcohol kills more people than guns. If you’re comfortable saying that it’s fine for politicians to be politically pragmatic in their approach to alcohol regulation, but that guns are such a transcendent question of conscience that you can’t stomach it, I think you should examine where that’s coming from. I suspect that you drink alcohol yourself and that alcohol consumption is common in your social circle and in fact it’s woven into the rituals of communal life. And I can relate! That’s me too. Indeed a lot of people like me don’t realize that drinking is much less common among working class people.

The point is that guns are just like this for a lot of other people. And while the centrality of booze and guns to people’s social and communal lives is not great for public health, basically everyone understands that with regard to alcohol you have to work within the confines of political reality. And guns fundamentally are just not different from that.