Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the state Sen. Mary Landrieu represents. It is Louisiana.
President Obama’s call for Congress to show the “courage” to consider new gun-control laws was aimed at Republicans, but he faces challenges with members of his own party who have a history of cowering from the gun debate.
The shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school last week exposed how divided Democrats have been on gun control. It also demonstrated that, along with the current president, Democrats have failed to champion reforms after previous acts of mass violence. While Republicans held the line on gun control, Democrats largely ducked, ever since they ratified the assault-weapons ban in 1994 and saw their majority in Congress disappear.
Gun-control advocates face familiar challenges in keeping Democrats unified. The most vulnerable Democratic senators in 2014 hail from rural states where hunting is popular and guns are ubiquitous: Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Max Baucus of Montana, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. (Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who was staunchly pro-gun during his 2010 and 2012 campaigns but now says he’s open to a debate, is not up for reelection for another six years. Same with Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who is also reconsidering his opposition to gun control as he transitions from congressman to senator and doesn’t face another election until 2018.)
The evolutions underscore how polarized the country is over gun control. Republicans, many of whom hail from rural, gun-owning states and districts, and the smaller number of Democrats that represent like-minded parts of the country, are responding as much to their constituents as to the powerful National Rifle Association lobby when opposing measures that come before Congress.
“There’s no question that the leadership of the party made a conscious decision years ago to walk away from the issue at all levels,” said Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, a top Capitol Hill adviser when the assault-weapons ban passed. “They figured they weren’t getting any credit for it, and they were getting hurt. I do think the situation [in Connecticut] could change that.”
The changing political calculus for some Democrats on gun control is starkly exemplified by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who recently boasted that he “stood by [Bill] Clinton’s side” as a top adviser when he signed the 1994 assault-weapons ban. But years later, Emanuel helped elect numerous pro-gun candidates--and bragged about their Second Amendment bona fides--as he spearheaded the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006. He was President Obama’s chief of staff in 2010 when the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence handed the administration an “F” for expanding gun rights and failing to reinstate the assault-weapons ban. Now, in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, as the mayor of a city plagued by gun violence, Emanuel is touting the ban once again.
Another prominent Democrat, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, underwent an even more dramatic conversion. As a member of the House representing a Republican-leaning upstate district in 2008, she voted to repeal a law that banned semiautomatic weapons in the District of Columbia and required gun owners to register their weapons and store them unloaded, with trigger locks. She earned an “A” rating from the NRA. Even as gun-control advocates complained about her January 2009 appointment to the Senate, she told a newspaper reporter that she kept two rifles under her bed. “If I want to protect my family, if I want to have a weapon in the home, that should be my right,” she said.
The makeover of the congresswoman from a conservative district to the senator of a liberal state began the next day, when staff said that the rifles were removed. Later that year, with the help of two former critics--New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y.--she sponsored legislation to crack down on illegal gun trafficking. The NRA downgraded her to an “F.” “She sounded like Annie Oakley, and now she’s somebody different,” complained her Republican challenger in 2010. Days after the shootings in Connecticut, she wrote a newspaper column pushing her gun-trafficking bill and other restrictions. “Congress has ducked a serious national debate over commonsense gun laws for too long,” she wrote.
In the column, she describes meeting the parents of a slain 17-year-old in Brooklyn, N.Y., shortly after her Senate appointment and the near-shooting death of her friend, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., in 2011. “Her former congressional district did not experience the same issues of gun violence,” explained her spokesman, Glen Caplin. “For the last four years, as a statewide representative, Senator Gillibrand has been highly focused on solving the problems of the entire state, including gang and gun violence.”