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Gun Politics Can Change. They Have Before.

The first presidential campaign I covered was in 2000, when I was in charge of the Concord Monitor's coverage of the Democratic side of the New Hampshire primary, between Al Gore and Bill Bradley. It may seem hard to believe, but much of that primary was fought over which candidate was tougher on gun control. Bradley led the way, attacking Gore for having been the "poster boy" of the NRA as a congressman and senator from Tennessee, and calling for "very tough gun legislation," including the "registration and licensing of all handguns, gun dealers out of residential neighborhoods, trigger locks, background checks, but above all, what we need is a leader who’s committed to this every day he’s in office. Otherwise, you’ll never beat the NRA." Gore countered by noting that he was a co-sponsor of the Brady Law, and cast the tie-breaking vote to close the gun show loophole: "We have got to take [the NRA] on strongly and pass new gun control legislation—not aimed at hunters and sportsmen, but at these handguns that are causing so much distress in our country."

We all know what happened next. In the general election, Gore came under fire from the right for his pro–gun control stances; his loss of West Virginia, a state that had been solidly Democratic for decades, and Tennessee, his home state—either of which would have put him over the top in the Electoral College, rendering Florida moot—was ascribed to his having spoken out on guns. In that sense, the Supreme Court helped tilt the tables against gun control even before their 2008 D.C. v. Heller decision: Had the Court not ruled for George W. Bush in 2000, Democrats surely would not have taken such a strong lesson from that election, that any serious talk of gun control was to be avoided. But they did, and in the decade since, we've heard nary a peep from the side of the spectrum that had previously made this one of their causes. John Kerry restrained talk of gun control in 2004, the same year that Bush let the assault-weapons ban lapse; Rahm Emanuel touted his success in electing explicitly pro–gun rights Democrats to the House in 2006; Barack Obama has until now skirted concerted efforts on this front.

It's worth keeping this recent history in mind now as we contemplate what can be achieved in the wake of the Newtown horror. There is no question that the path of serious reform is incredibly steep. Jon Chait lays out the obstacles as well as anyone, noting that any legislation would have to go through a House that is controlled by deeply pro–gun rights Republicans, most of whom are now ensconced in safe districts where the biggest threat to their livelihood is a primary challenge from the right. But some of the resigned fatalism we've heard over the weekend seems overdone. Yes, public support for serious gun control has dwindled over the past decade. But it's surely dwindled in part because Democrats stopped talking about it. Look at this graph charting support for stricter regulations on the sales of firearms—it ticked up slightly after the Columbine shootings in April 1999, to 66 percent, and then began its decade-long decline after the 2000 election, to 44 percent last year. There are many factors contributing to that decline. But I'll wager that the biggest one was the absence of sustained, high-profile support in the political arena. Voters were not hearing a pro–gun control message from anyone in the public sphere, aside from the few hardy advocacy groups still carrying the flag. Not only that, but they could sense that those whom you'd expect to support the cause—Democrats—considered it a political loser. And no one likes backing a loser.

No question, guns have a deeper hold on the American psyche than in most other parts of the developed world. But gun politics are not as static as we often make them out to be. Heck, as Jill Lepore documented not so long ago, the NRA wasn't even unflinchingly anti–gun control until the final decades of the 20th century. And as my colleague Nate Cohn has noted, there was the hint of a post-election shift underway on this issue even before the Newtown massacre. Simply put, the Democratic coalition is much less reliant than it was even a decade ago on voters who prioritize gun rights. At the presidential level, the party no longer even competes in states such as West Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas, and it has shown that it can win states such as Ohio and Virginia despite very poor showings in their more conservative, rural precincts. The picture is of course murkier downballot—the party's Senate majority relies on members from rural states such as Montana and North Dakota where resistance to gun control runs higher. But even there, the landscape may already be shifting. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has an A rating from the NRA and famously fired a rifle at cap-and-trade legislation to signal his independence from the national Democratic agenda, said this morning that he would be willing to reconsider measures like the assault-weapons ban.

And then there is Obama. No, a president alone cannot pass laws. But he can start making a push. Obama's powerful and surprisingly explicit call for action last night was unlike any argument the country has been exposed to on this issue for a long time. It's too soon to say, but it now seems possible that Obama makes this issue a priority for a second term that was otherwise relatively lacking in a new agenda. There is personal motivation here that goes beyond his deep upset as a parent, and goes back to his years as a community organizer and state legislator in a city with some of the worst child gun violence in the country. He, like other Democrats, relegated the issue to the rear this past decade, and no one but the gun lobby itself really believed he'd take it up in a second term. It would be the height of irony if, on this point, the right wing turned out to be correct. And the gun lobby's not stupid. They weren't worried about Obama taking up this cause because they didn't think it would make a difference if he did. They know that persuasion works. Especially if you have the field nearly all too yourself, as they have had for too long.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis