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.”