I started my first job in politics the year of the massacre at Columbine high school, which reignited a nationwide debate about the steps federal government should take to stop gun violence. In the nearly 20 years since then, there has been almost no progress. To the contrary, if you account for the expiration of the assault weapons ban in 2004, it’s fair to say we have gone backwards.
We could lay the death of progress at the feet of the Republican Party, which has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Rifle Association, but that would ultimately be a cop out. Democrats have prevailed over recalcitrant Republicans and their most powerful interest groups before, most recently on issues like health care reform, financial regulation, reproductive freedom, and LGBTQ rights.
But when it comes to firearms we routinely fail. We are now in the midst of another gun debate that we will almost certainly lose. The majority of Americans support stricter gun laws; less than 40 percent of Americans live in a house with a gun; consensus Democratic gun control proposals like requiring universal background checks and banning assault weapons poll above 80 percent; and yet the idea that even trivial legislation will reach the president’s desk remains a fantasy.
Why can’t we win a debate when the facts, morality, and public opinion are on our side?
The fatal flaw in the Democratic strategy is a failure to heed one of the key lessons of twenty first-century American politics: Democrats never win when they fight on Republican terms.
Republicans have defined the terms of the debate on guns and instead of trying to change those terms, we have resigned ourselves to playing on their turf. The Democratic approach to guns is one of the last vestiges of the mushy strategic applesauce that dominated 1990s DLC-style centrism—the only way to beat Republicans is to try to sound more like them. It is a defensive posture borne of a defeatist mindset that is more a product of Democratic psychology than of political reality. Democrats speak softly and carry a small stick to the gun fight because they have convinced themselves that Republicans have the law, politics, and a presumption of victory on their side. The truth is less daunting, but unless Democrats come around to that truth, the presumption of Republican victory will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The interpretation of the Second Amendment that prevails on the far right today was reverse-engineered to pander to fantasists. If it takes hold nearly all gun regulations will eventually be overturned, and once Democrats resign themselves to that interpretation, the fight will be over. That’s not what the Second Amendment imagines, and it is clearly not what the founders intended, but it is where the political fight over guns is taking us. (As an aside, what the founders likely did intend has become outmoded. The Second Amendment is in many ways an anachronism, framed before the age of drones and cruise missiles, when a well-armed civilian militia have actually been capable of turning back a foreign invasion. Times change. This is not Red Dawn. You are not Patrick Swayze. Chill out.)
The 2008 Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which interpreted the Second Amendment to confer an individual right to own firearms, leaves Democrats rhetorically and substantively behind the eight ball in the fight to stop mass shootings. But that should not tempt gun control supporters to despair. It is certainly true that our short-term policy positions must pass the Heller test, but it is also a major strategic error to confine our vision to a Supreme Court decision that many legal scholars find ridiculous and many generations of judges would find astonishing. Just as Republicans organize themselves around efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, Democrats should run on changing the balance of federal courts in ways that will make it less likely that citizens will be slaughtered simply because they went to the wrong concert, movie theater, or school.
Democratic politicians have been brainwashed by political hacks like me to begin all of their statements about guns by declaring support for the Second Amendment and a deep affinity for the cultures of hunters and sportsmen—even if they themselves have never fired weapons. We call them “gun safety” proposals instead of “gun control” measures because pollsters and consultants divined that “gun safety” would be less alarming to gun voters, and that gun voters were to be coddled at all cost.
The Democratic gun control strategy fails because it is defined by this poverty of ambition—the determination never to look beyond fear of political repercussions. Universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines are good ideas and we should seize the opportunity to enact them if it presents itself. But they won’t come anywhere close to making gun violence in America a tolerable problem. We are nibbling around the edges instead of proposing bold, meaningful solutions such as:
- A national gun registry, so law-enforcement officials can know when someone is compiling an arsenal. The government can track purchases of allergy medicines that can be used to make methamphetamine, and fertilizers that can be used to make bombs, like the one used in Oklahoma City in 1994, but not deadly assault weapons. That’s absurd.
- Tracking and limiting purchases of ammunition.
- Requiring that guns use smart-gun technology, which would dramatically reduce accidental deaths, particularly among children, who, according to a 2016 study, are dying accidental deaths at the hands of guns at the rate of one every other day.
- A national gun buyback program similar to the one Australia instituted after a mass shooting that killed 35 people. That incident was in 1996. There hasn’t been another one since,
These proposals are essentially omitted from the national conversation largely because Democrats are scared that the NRA will spin them disingenuously to inflame gun owners. Again, Democrats presume their hand is the weaker of the two. Last week, Republicans rejoiced, and some Democrats winced privately, when Nancy Pelosi said she hoped regulation of bump stocks—the device the Las Vegas shooter used to make his weapon more deadly—would be a “slippery slope” to further regulation. Democrats were concerned that Pelosi had handed the NRA a political cudgel the group would brandish against every one of them. But Pelosi was right, and I would like to see more Democrats find her courage, because the alternative is to surrender our ideals, and the moral high ground, for no discernible upside.
The NRA is already inflamed, and they come after vulnerable Democrats no matter how gun-friendly they are, or how frequently they don camouflage and brandish rifles in their campaign ads. Republicans currently control every branch of government and the NRA is still producing agitprop aimed at convincing gun owners that liberal Democrats and radical leftists are going to come after their guns. The NRA will prefer Republicans over Democrats whenever given the choice, and when there are no Democrats to attack, they will run against imaginary ones. This is why Democrats should abandon the approach of strategic appeasement. It’s doomed to fail.
In 2001, when Mark Warner was running for Governor in Virginia, which was then still deeply red, he sought to blunt the cultural challenges Democrats face in the South by running to the right of his Republican opponent, Mark Earley, on guns. Warner opposed a bill that his opponent voted for which would have limited handgun purchases to one a month. Gun advocates vehemently opposed this bill, but when it came time to grade candidates, the NRA gave a Earley a higher grade, despite Warner’s superior record on the very issue they cared most about. This was not an isolated incident either. The NRA isn’t a gun rights group, it’s a Republican Super PAC that profits off of paranoia. It sells the false specter of mass gun raids so effectively that gun sales skyrocketed right after Obama was reelected, as members built defensive arsenals. The sad truth is that, for most people who worked in the Obama White House, our failure to take meaningful action to reduce gun violence is our greatest regret.
Democrats should feel liberated not intimidated by the NRA’s dishonesty. Why fake moderation when the NRA will describe every gun control proposal, no matter how incremental, in maximalist terms.
None of this is to say that Democrats should write off “gun voters,” but we should stop trying to win them over with insincere pandering on the gun issue. Among the subset of gun voters for whom guns are a litmus-test issue, Democrats will never satisfy them, just as they will never satisfy single-issue anti-abortion voters, and as a party, we need to make peace with that fact.
But Democratic candidates do need to visit the rural areas where hunting and gun ownership are a part of the culture, and demonstrate that we can make people’s lives better. Taking the trouble to show up and be transparent will go a long way toward discrediting the NRA’s caricature of Democratic politicians as shifty radicals with ulterior motives. Keep the guns, but help us find a balance between your desire to buy more guns and my desire to feel safe from gunfire in public.
I understand why defeatism is so rampant. If the slaughter of 20 innocent children in Newtown didn’t change enough minds to change any laws, the thinking goes, then it will never happen. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We have failed to date because we have failed to make robust, courageous, and honest arguments to the country. We may not succeed in time to prevent the next mass shooting or the one after that, but we can win this argument over time. And the truth is, we have yet to try.