“I’d rather pass gun safety legislation than win the election.” Those were the words of Nancy Pelosi on Thursday, one day after a heavily armed 19-year-old killed at least 17 people in and around his former high school in Parkland, Florida. Depending on your level of cynicism, that’s either a noble statement or an empty one, given Republicans currently control both houses of Congress. Either way, Pelosi’s formulation said a lot about the gun debate today: It is taken as a given that passing meaningful gun legislation is a losing political proposition.
That belief, of course, is not a new one. Its origin story dates back more than two decades and goes something like this: President Bill Clinton and his allies spent plenty of time and political capital in 1994 to push a sweeping crime bill through Congress, which included a temporary ban on some assault weapons. Many Democrats celebrated when Clinton signed that bill into law that September, but it was Republicans who were celebrating two months later.
The midterms that November were a bloodbath for Democrats. Led by Newt Gingrich, and with the support of an energized National Rifle Association, the GOP gained 54 seats in the House and another eight in the Senate. Among the casualties was the Speaker of the House, Tom Foley, the first speaker to lose his re-election since 1862. “The fight for the assault-weapons ban cost 20 members their seats in Congress,” Clinton said that January. “The NRA is the reason Republicans control the House.” And with that, a legend was born. As Russell Riley, co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia, would put it two decades later: “Clinton’s victory proved to be so costly to him and to his party that it stands as an enduring cautionary tale in Washington about the political dangers of taking on the issue of gun control.”
But cautionary tales are not always true, and almost never absolutely so. There were countless other factors that contributed to the GOP wave that fall that are conveniently forgotten when the conversation turns to guns: a Democratic base depressed by the failure of health care reform and the passage of NAFTA; a Republican Party united in its opposition to the man in the White House; and an overdue political realignment, to name just a few. Add to that the larger historical trends concerning the success—or lack thereof—of a president’s party in the midterms, and it’s clear that Democrats would have been fighting a steep uphill battle even if they had never taken up the assault-weapons ban.
And yet, as Pelosi’s comment made clear Thursday, the belief that you can’t do anything about guns without paying a steep political price is left mostly unquestioned by the very people who say they want nothing more than to do something about gun violence.
Now, to be clear, there is major difference between an issue not being an automatic drag on your electoral prospects and actually being a boon to them. Saying gun control isn’t the losing issue it’s made out to be is not the same as saying it’s a winner. There are plenty of logical reasons for Democrats to fret. The majority of Americans may be in favor of small, specific actions like universal background checks or renewing the ban on assault weapons, but as Ramesh Ponnuru argued persuasively in the National Review in November after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, one reason the passion for those very actions is so muted is that many supporters don’t actually believe such laws would make all that much of a difference. Things only get more complicated when the debate moves into the abstract and away from the specifics (as it often does when the NRA is involved); opinions on gun control versus gun rights tend to swing toward control in the aftermath of a high-profile shooting before swinging back as time passes. That means a gun-centric pitch from Democrats would likely find a receptive audience today but an uncertain one in November.
Still, there is perhaps a different lesson Democrats might draw from the 1994 midterms—one more about perception than reality. Consider this possibility: Democrats campaign relatively hard on the issue of gun control in districts they think would be particularly receptive to the message, while still making sure to fold it in with their larger anti-Trump message, just as Republicans did with their opposition to Clinton in 1994. Democrats would have a particularly strong argument for tying Trump to the lack of action on guns, considering the NRA was one of Trump’s earliest backers—to the tune of $30 million—and remains one of his strongest supporters. That gamble could come with a rather big reward if gun control activists were able to capture a few notable Republican scalps in November: the chance for them and Democrats to do a little mythmaking of their own. Convincing Americans that gun control isn’t toxic at the ballot box wouldn’t be enough to pass meaningful gun laws, of course, but it might finally be a start.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.