Several prominent Democratic lawmakers, most notably California Senator Diane Feinstein, have vowed to renew their push to reinstate the assault weapons ban in the wake of the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook, CT. However, the White House does not seem so keen to jump onto the bandwagon. At a time when the nation is recovering from the horrific tragedy injecting politics into the debate would likely have disastrous consequences for the President and Democrats. For Feinstein in deep blue California that may not matter but in the rest of the nation it does.
Certainly some conservative Democrats seem willing to risk their political futures on such a move. But for the majority it seems they would rather have the issue go away. And it would make sense. Senate Democrats up this cycle in Romney states would surely like this issue to disappear. Democrats in swing to moderate districts where gun control is a settled issue certainly do not want to fight a campaign dragged down by a national party advocating for renewed gun control efforts.
A number of notable liberal authors such as Nate Cohn, Steve Kornacki, and Jamelle Bouie have all argued that the politics of gun control are not damaging to Democrats. Cohn cities the rise in urban and suburban areas where voters do not care much about guns as a reason for Democrats to renew the issue. Kornacki echoes much the same sentiment. Bouie argues that rural Democrats were willing to stick with Clinton in 1996 so why not have Democrats push the issue today? Nevermind many Democratic Congressmen and Senators were wiped out in 94 partly in response to the Brady Bill and other gun control efforts pushed by Clinton.
But let’s leave the political repercussions of such a move by Democrats alone for a second. According to data compiled by the FBI in the year 1992, the violent crime rate per 100,000 residents was 758. BY this year that number had fallen to 386. Between 2000 and 2009 use of firearms in violent crime had dropped from a rate of 2.4 per 1,000 to 1.4 per 1000. Certainly in some years over these periods the rate has increased and dipped (think Columbine, 2000 or V. Tech, 2007) but the overall trends are to the downside. So from a statistical standpoint the policy reaction to renew gun bans of any sort is inappropriate.
Now let’s move back to the political repercussions of such an action. Gallup data from this year found that 45% of all Americans have guns in their homes. The data also found that only 44% want stricter gun control laws while a majority, 54%, want the laws kept the same or made less strict. In an October 2011 survey Gallup found that 60% wanted the current gun regulations strictly enforced and only 36% favored new legislation on regulating firearms. Do Democrats really want to approach an issue with those kinds of numbers for their position? Probably not.
Yet they may have to regardless. President Obama has actually been fairly laissez-faire in terms of gun regulations. He may see this as the perfect opportunity to reconnect with his base on the issue. But many Democratic Congressmen and Senators who hail from red states or districts fear the repercussions of such an action. Visions of 1994 and 2010 surely dance through their heads.
For future Democratic Presidential candidates having this be a front and center issue for the party could be a major issue. Thinking short-term the best looking viable candidates for Democrats in 2016 look to be Governor Mario Cuomo (NY), Senator Mark Warner (VA) and Vice President Joe Biden (I exclude Hilary because she has not stated much preference to run one way or the other). Short of Biden none of these candidates have pushed left on gun issues. Rather they have been moderate politicians in a blue or purple state. Having a national platform that emphasizes gun control could seriously jeopardize their claim to being right for the White House.
Here is how. Liberal bloggers such as Cohn and Kornacki seem pretty assured that Democrats can still win national elections without the rural vote. They may be right. But the margin of error to do so would be much smaller. Democrats do not overwhelmingly win the suburbs. In fact the President owes his reelection to urban not suburban voters. But if Democrats were to suddenly shift left on gun control they would be in danger of losing an even larger share of the rural vote.
Let’s look at how this could change the outcome in two key states. In 2012 Obama won Wisconsin by six points. The urban vote made up 26% of the electorate, suburbia 42% and rural areas 31%. Obama won 69% of the urban vote, 47% of the suburban vote and, this is the biggie, 46% of the rural vote. If Obama had seen his share of the rural vote drop down to 30%-35% Romney would have won the state easily. Wisconsin’s rural voters tend to be more moderate but staunchly pro-gun. If the Democratic party moves left on the issue they could lose these voters. Now let’s look at another state. In 2012 Obama won Iowa quite handily. He won urban voters easily, basically split the suburban vote and racked up 46% of the rural vote. The rural vote made up an eye-popping 53% of the electorate in Iowa that year. If Obama had not won 40% of rural voters he would have lost Iowa. These two states illustrate how Democrats at the presidential level could feel the pain from pushing new gun control legislation.
Any renewed effort by Democrats to renew gun control legislation would not destroy their party. But it could seriously weaken it going into 2016. Looking beyond if current American migration and demographic patterns hold up the suburbs could become the new rural areas. Many rural voters have already migrated to these areas. So there is no guarantee that suburban voters care less about gun control than rural voters.
Democrats would be wise to consider that pushing gun control could backfire on them in the short and long-term at every level of governance.