Plenty of observers did a double-take last week when the top Democratic senator, Tom Daschle, supported a bill to protect gun dealers and manufacturers from legal liability, finding himself on the same side as all the major gun groups, from the NRA on down. “It is wrong — and a misuse of the civil justice system — to try to punish honest, law-abiding people for illegal acts committed by others without their knowledge or involvement,” said Daschle.
If some centrist Democrats have their way, we can expect to hear much more of this kind of talk from Dems, many of whom have been hurt at the polls by their anti-gun image.
A Wall Street Journal editorial on Monday said, “Perhaps Mr. Daschle has seen the light. […] But our guess is that the explanation is much more pragmatic. Mr. Daschle has seen the writing on the wall: Gun control, which was less about safety than about scaring suburbanites into voting for Democrats, is a political loser.”
Certainly the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the intra-party group that launched Bill Clinton’s national career, thinks so. The DLC held a forum in Atlanta last week, entitled “God, Guns and Guts: Seizing the Cultural Center,” and devoted to the proposition that Democrats need to make inroads into key constituencies such as “gun owners, people of faith, married couples with kids.”
Speaking a few days before the event, Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat who thinks his party’s traditional gun-control stance is an electoral liability, laid out the rationale for the conference.
“If we appear to be hostile to individuals of faith, hostile to those who own guns, indifferent to the concerns of traditional families and weak on national security issues, that is not a winning prescription for the Democratic Party.”
Sen. Mark Pryor, a pro-gun Arkansas Democrat, told colleagues they should take a lesson from his senatorial run:
“‘Silence is not golden.’ Recounting his successful campaign to defeat a Republican incumbent in 2002, Pryor reminded the audience of the ‘concerted effort by Republicans to foster’ negative stereotypes about Democrats, and urged Democrats to ‘tell the truth’ and define themselves aggressively on cultural issues instead of letting the opposition dominate the debate.”
Pryor was the only Democrat to defeat an incumbent Republican in 2002. He ran television ads showing him reading the Bible, and by way of signalling that he hunts and supports gun owners, his campaign bumper sticker had a camouflage pattern. “I think the voter looks at the person running for office and makes this subjective judgment: Is the candidate one of us?” Pryor said.
Some, particularly left-leaning Democrats, will dismiss this as another sign that Democrats are selling out their core principles in exchange for “electability.” But Democrats seem like they could use something to say about guns. Most Democratic presidential candidates support extending the assault weapons ban, due to expire next year, and some new gun safety measures, but on the stump they’ve mostly stayed away from the issue.
Ironically, the Democrat with the most gun-friendly record, Howard Dean, is dismissed by the DLC as too liberal to be electable. Yet a poll by Mark Penn, a former Clinton advisor, indicates that a candidate like Dean will be a winner on the issue (though not necessarily on others) if he engages audiences on it:
“The poll found that gun owning voters often assume that Democrats, particularly if they are silent on the issue, are anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment, and disrespectful of the values held by those who own firearms. It also found that a plurality of gun owners define themselves as moderates and will flock to Democratic candidates with a moderate gun position.”
Penn presented his finding at the DLC’s meeting, bolstering Pryor’s arguments with poll findings. Almost half of America’s households have a gun owner, and 37 percent of American voters are gun owners. His poll figures have clear implications:
“In a generic congressional ballot, a Democrat trails a Republican who supports Second Amendment rights by a margin of 42-45%. When the Democrat is described as one who supports Second Amendment rights, closing gun law loopholes, and vigorous enforcement of existing laws, the Democrat wins 57-32%. Support for this ‘rights and responsibilities’ Democrat increases from 30% to 44% among gun owners and from 52% to 68% among non-gun owners.”
Whether Democrats as a whole will retreat from their traditional gun control stance remains to be seen. Wesley Clark, for some the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, is an advocate of gun rights, though he thinks assault weapons should be banned. On Crossfire earlier this year he said, “I have got twenty-some odd guns in the house. I like to hunt. I have grown up with guns all my life, but people who like assault weapons should join the United States Army, we have them.”
Candidates Richard Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich have co-sponsored a a bill in Congress that will renew and strengthen the federal assault weapons ban due to expire next year.
John Kerry’s seems to be taking the DLC’s advice, his web site has language that the DLC would likely approve of: “Increased Gun Safety: John Kerry is a gun owner and hunter, and he believes that law-abiding American adults have the right to own guns. But like all of our rights, gun rights come with responsibilities, and those rights allow for reasonable restrictions to keep guns out of the wrong hands.”
An article published in the DLC’s Blueprint magazine in July, argued:
“It’s time to scrap the term ‘gun control’ altogether. The interest groups have quietly banned the term; so should Democrats. ‘Gun safety’ is a more accurate term to describe measures like mandatory safety locks, closing the gun-show loophole, and better enforcement of existing gun laws.
“We need to make the instant check system truly instant and accurate…Enforce the gun laws! We have to close the gap between the gun crimes that are committed and those that are prosecuted. Enough talk, we need action…We must safeguard our rights, bring traditional values to Washington, close the loopholes, and enforce the laws we need to stop criminals…
“Democrats should invoke the traditional values of responsible gun ownership and pledge to fight for those values — backing that up with public acts, like going hunting and target shooting and forming Gun Owners for Bill Smith.”
The Chrisitan Science Monitor reported earlier this year that Democrats were toning down their gun control stance in part because they see it as an electoral liability:
“The shift in tone can be traced to the aftermath of the 2000 election, and the pervasive belief that the issue cost Al Gore the presidency. Exit polls from 2000 showed that among gun owners, George W. Bush beat Mr. Gore by 61 to 39 percent. More significant, while 59 percent of union households went for Mr. Gore overall, those homes were just as likely to choose Bush if they contained guns.”
It’s not clear whether loosening up on guns will be a winning strategy for the Democrats. A shift away from gun control could win new (armed) voters, but it could alientate the Democratic base. If the Democrats move too far away from the gun control without compensating with gun safety proposals to tend to the Democratic base, the strategy may backfire, sending many Democrats, once again, into the Naderite camp.