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.”
Asked if she still owned the two rifles, Caplin said, “I’m not going to get into this.”
A shift in public opinion could offer political cover. A new Pew Research Center poll finds that, by 49 percent to 42 percent, limiting gun ownership is viewed as more important than protecting gun owners. The survey marks the first time since Obama’s election that more Americans prioritized gun control over gun rights.
“We’re getting so many calls from state capitals and Capitol Hill, it’s overwhelming,” said Brian Malte, spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “This feels like it could be a tipping point.”
It’s been nearly two decades since President Clinton pushed the assault-weapons ban, strategically attached to a sweeping anticrime bill and a 10-year expiration date. The House passed it by only two votes, and even Democrats who voted no feared it would brand their party as antigun.
“We knew it was a politically devastating vote at the moment it passed,” said Patrick Griffin, who served as Clinton’s director of legislative affairs. “They cleaned our clock in 1994. You can’t ascribe all of that to guns, but it was a factor.”
Guns were blamed again in 2000 when Democratic nominee Al Gore lost one of the closest presidential elections in history to Republican George W. Bush. As vice president, Gore backed the assault-weapons ban and cast a tie-breaking vote for a 1999 background check law. Just one more gun-friendly, Southern state--Arkansas, West Virginia, or even his home state of Tennessee--could have delivered the presidency to Gore, even without Florida.
Six years later, a handful of pro-gun candidates, including Joe Donnelly and Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, Heath Shuler of North Carolina, and Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, helped Democrats take back the House. Once again, other factors contributed to the election results--the heated immigration debate, political scandals, and the unpopularity of the war in Iraq--but the success of pro-gun Democrats reinforced the party’s wariness of gun limits.
Anxious to protect their moderate members and the president’s reelection prospects, Democrats shied from high-stakes gun votes even after massacres at Virginia Tech and Fort Hood (although Republicans seized the House anyway in 2010), and after slayings at a meet-and-greet hosted by Rep. Giffords and in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. “It’s never been a simple Democrat versus Republican issue. It’s much more complicated than that,” Griffin said.
A former top aide to Obama and on Capitol Hill, Jim Papa, said that Republicans beholden to the gun lobby deserve the lion’s share of the blame for inaction on gun control.
“There has always been an overwhelming amount of Democratic votes for gun control and practically zero support from the other party, and the responsibility falls on the Democrats?” he asked. “Opponents of gun control have confused the issue, confused assault weapons with hunting rifles, so there is peril for people who believe in one and not the other. The NRA successfully equated sensible, popular gun-safety legislation with taking away your shotgun.”
But even when Democrats controlled both legislative chambers during Obama’s first two years in office, they passed and he signed laws allowing visitors to carry loaded, concealed guns to national parks and permitting Amtrak passengers to stow guns in checked baggage. The assault-weapons ban was never taken up during Obama’s first term, which was consumed with trying to revive the economy, pass health care reforms, and end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You don’t have an infinite amount of time and goodwill, and you have to pick some priorities,” said Griffin, the former Clinton aide. “Postelection, after this horrific event, maybe there’s a moment when we can come to common ground. I’m not convinced of that, but it looks better than ever.”