The changing politics, not policies, of gun control

Nice post from Seth Masket on the Democrats big push/stunt/psuedo-filibuster/what-have-you in the House.  What’s notable is not this political event, but what it means for politics.  Democrats are no longer afraid of the gun issue.  That’s a big and important change.  Seth:

But perhaps the most notable aspect of this was national Democrats taking a very vocal stance in favor of some form of gun regulation. As David Karol has demonstrated, gun control is one of those rare issues that had actually experienced a form of depolarization. In the 1980s and ’90s, the major parties regularly fought each other over guns, and Democrats achieved substantial gun restrictions when they briefly held unified control of the government in the early 1990s.

But Republicans continued to push to undermine those laws in the following years, while Democrats largely stopped fighting back. By the time of the 2000 election, there seemed to be a general recognition among Democrats that they were losing electorally on the issue; Republicans had successfully convinced enough voters that Democrats were coming to take their guns, regardless of the actual substance of any given piece of legislation.

In an era of declining violent crime, Democrats came to believe that they couldn’t win on the gun issue, and they largely stopped talking about it. And the National Rifle Association and other pro–gun rights groups maintained a much stronger role in the Republican Party’s nomination politics than gun control groups ever did in the Democrats’. It’s very hard to get nominated as a pro–gun control Republican, while anti–gun control Democrats get nominated pretty regularly.

But the rash of high-publicity mass shootings in recent years seems to have shifted Democrats’ calculations. Democrats in a number of states have been pressing for gun control legislation. And the recent tragedy in Orlando seems to have pushed House Democrats into action…

It’s not, of course, just that Democrats feel that this is one shooting too many. It’s that they see this as a winning issue for them [emphasis mine], for several reasons. For one, even if tying gun restrictions to a no-fly list only compounds a civil liberties nightmare, it obviously polls well, and it’s difficult for opponents to mount a defense for allowing terror suspects access to weapons…

This is unlikely to become a major issue in the election. For the most part, Republican voters were already convinced Democrats were coming to take their guns anyway. But this does have the effect of energizing gun control activists on the left. House Democrats’ activities this week are a form of campaign promise, one that gun control advocates will be demanding action on should Democrats gain partial or full control of the federal government in November.

The policies haven’t changed — not yet, anyway — but the politics have, and Democrats elected this year will have an important item on their agenda that hasn’t been there in years.

So, no, don’t expect any changes in gun policies any time soon.  But they were surely never going to change so long as Democrats just rolled over on gun issues out fear.  That’s clearly not the case any longer.  It’s sad that so many people have had to die to get to this point, and no, not all the Democratic policies are necessarily the most sensible, but if we are ever going to get more sensible gun policies, this is an important step in that direction.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to The changing politics, not policies, of gun control

  1. rgbact says:

    Theres fewer Democrats than theres been in years. The moderates that were afraid of the gun issue are all in retirement.

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