Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., recently broke Democratic leaders’ deliberate silence on gun control with a call for his party to adopt a more assertive embrace of the right to bear arms in the hope of encouraging compromise on the issue.
Schumer said on Thursday that liberals for decades have read the Second Amendment “through a pinhole” despite backing broad interpretations of constitutional rights, such as due process. That has lead gun-rights advocates to reasonably conclude that Democrats’ call for some restrictions “was a smoke screen” for an effort to “take away your gun,” Schumer said.
To rekindle efforts to pass “rational laws on guns,” gun-control supporters should “make it clear once and for all that that is not our goal” by affirming “that there is right to bear arms just like there’s a right to free speech and others,” Schumer said.
“Once we establish that it’s in the Constitution, it’s part of the American way of life even though some don’t like it; once we establish that basic paradigm that no one wants to abolish guns for everybody … then maybe we can begin the other side of the dialogue, Schumer said.
Schumer’s remarks, which aides said were unscripted, were delivered Thursday evening before a nearly empty Senate chamber after almost all his colleagues had left the Capitol. And his statements were unaccompanied by the media push Schumer’s staff typically executes to promote his initiatives.
But they are significant because Schumer is effectively Senate Democrats’ chief political and messaging strategist. He was also the lead sponsor of gun-control bills enacted in the 1980s and 1990s before he became a key architect of an electoral strategy through which Democrats surrendered any attempt to push gun control in a successful effort to pick up seats in rural states and districts.
Schumer’s speech, which was more specific and seemingly more candid on the politics of gun control than a Thursday speech by President Obama, was the first extended discussion of the issue by a member of the Democratic congressional leadership since the July 20 massacre in Aurora, Colo. Schumer spoke just hours after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., irritably refused to discuss the issue beyond saying that no floor time was available for gun-control legislation. Reid and other senior Democrats wanted to avoid discussion of gun control this week, Senate leadership aides said.
Polling shows support for gun control dipping in recent years. But what Schumer called Democrats’ paralysis on gun control results less from national preferences — most Americans still back restricting access to assault weapons — than an imbalance in intensity of feeling. Both parties believe gun-rights advocates are more likely to vote based on the issue than their foes, especially in rural states such as Montana and Missouri that the party needs to control the Senate.
In a novel piece of analysis, Schumer argued that a dramatic decrease in crime rates over 20 years worsened that imbalance and weakened the gun-control lobby. In the 1980s and early 1990s “crime was ravaging that … average folks would call and complain and worry about too many guns in society,” Schumer said. As crime fell, intense support for gun control also declined, Schumer argued.
That may explain the weakness of the gun-control lobby. The political action committee of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, for instance, has been inactive since 2008.
Schumer argued that Democrats’ best chance to right the political imbalance is to embrace basic gun rights in a bid to lessen the intensity of opposition to what many call common-sense gun restrictions, such as banning public access to high-capacity magazines like the one used in Aurora.
The Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller already effectively ensures a right to own guns. And some Democrats say they have already embraced basic gun rights, but Schumer urged more assertive rhetoric.
After his speech, Schumer said he was not offering a short-term proposal but a long-term suggestion for altering terms of the debate to allow compromise. “We need a new conversation on guns and I was trying to suggest a direction for it,” he said.