On gun control, Democrats remain paralyzed by the fear of losing voters whom they have already lost.
After the Aurora, Colo., massacre last week, President Obama waited until this Wednesday to raise the issue at all—and even then stopped short of reaffirming his previous support for restoring the assault-weapons ban passed under Bill Clinton. And this week, when several Democratic legislators from coastal states urged “commonsense gun-safety reforms,” the party’s congressional leadership was conspicuously silent.
All of that reflects the hardened conventional wisdom among Democrats that gun control is a losing issue, a credo that dates back to Al Gore’s defeat in 2000. Unquestionably, gun control is a difficult political issue that splits the country almost in half. And polls leave no doubt that public support for gun control has waned since Clinton’s time.
But it’s a myth that there is no longer any audience for gun control. It is, in fact, almost exactly the same audience that President Obama is pursuing with virtually everything else he does. Gun control is deeply unpopular with the portions of the white electorate most hostile to Obama anyway: blue-collar whites and college-educated white men. But among the voters who might actually vote for Obama (particularly minorities and college-educated white women), restrictions on gun ownership still attract solid majority support.
During the 1990s, when Clinton won two pitched battles with the National Rifle Association (passing the assault-weapons ban and the Brady bill requiring background checks for handgun purchases), about three-fifths of Americans in Pew Research Center polls consistently said that it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect gun rights. That sentiment was durable enough that George W. Bush in 2000 did not propose repealing Clinton’s assault-weapons ban; as president, he even nominally endorsed extending it (although Bush didn’t object when congressional Republicans let it lapse).
Support for gun control in Pew’s polls skidded only after Obama took office; in an April 2012 survey, 49 percent of adults said that it was most important to protect gun rights, while 45 percent placed greater priority on controlling gun ownership. (Some other recent national surveys find a slight tilt toward toughening gun laws.) One reason public support for gun control has probably declined is because no national leader since Clinton and Gore has made the case for it. But the evidence suggests that the broader backlash against government activism under Obama has also fueled the resistance. Pew data show that the sharpest movement away from gun control since 2000 has come among the same groups most disenchanted with Obama’s overall agenda: white men with college degrees, and white men and women without them. Each of those groups now mostly prioritizes gun rights.
Support for gun control has also slipped somewhat since 2000 among minorities and college-educated white women, but in Pew’s April survey, three-fifths in both groups still prioritized limits on ownership. Not coincidentally, those are precisely the groups most open to activist government and Obama himself.
Attitudes toward guns now closely track views on other issues dividing the two parties. In Pew’s April survey, gun-control opponents were much more likely than supporters to reject the idea that government should spend more to help the needy, and to say that immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values. Four-fifths of self-described tea party supporters stressed gun rights over gun control, while a 54 percent majority of everyone else made the opposite choice.
What this means is that the vast majority of voters who dislike gun control have so many other reasons to oppose Obama that they are unlikely to switch just because he holsters this one issue. Congressional Democrats face the same dynamic. One reason Democrats abandoned gun control is because they concluded that it bled them rural- and blue-collar seats during the 1994 GOP landslide. But after slowly recapturing some of those seats, Democrats saw almost all of them wash away again in a 2010 GOP torrent swelled not by guns but the broader recoil from Obama’s activism.
If there is a road back to a Democratic congressional majority, it almost certainly will not run through such downscale districts; rather, it will go through the leafy suburban seats where gun control retains more backing. Likewise, if Obama survives in November, it will largely be because he maintained support among minorities and upscale women—not because he recaptured the blue-collar whites stampeding away from him.
Gun control is a high-risk issue because half of the electorate passionately opposes it. Yet it is the half that Democrats have little chance of reaching. Since Clinton’s era, almost all Republicans, even those from upscale places still open to restrictions, have bowed to the majority position on guns among their core supporters. However, on gun control, almost uniquely for a social issue, the president and most congressional Democrats have elevated the priorities of voters outside of their coalition over the preferences of those within it. In politics, as in combat, it isn’t much of a fight when one side unilaterally disarms.
This article appears in the July 28, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.