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Why Obama Should Lead From Behind on Gun Control

Democrats are gearing up to push gun-control legislation, but on Monday afternoon White House Press Secretary Jay Carney characteristically dodged questions about President Barack Obama's role in pursuing it. Pressed on the issue, Carney said he couldn't go into specifics and that the problem was complicated, raising the question of how the president would attempt to advance the issue in the aftermath of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. While gun-control advocates might be anxious because Obama hasn't launched an all-out offensive for an enumerated gun-control platform, such legislation probably stands a better chance if the president leads from behind, at least for now.

There are reasons for gun-control advocates to be relatively optimistic about their chances after Newtown, but there’s one overriding obstacle facing even the most limited gun-control measures: the House of Representatives. Not only do congressional Republicans oppose gun control in principle, but many of them risk primary challenges if they dare reconsider unconditional support for the NRA's interpretation of the Second Amendment. Given that 2013 already promises challenging votes on a fiscal cliff deal and perhaps immigration reform, most House Republicans would rather not anger their base by deviating from their strict stance on gun rights.

Passing even a limited gun-control measure during this session of Congress would require splitting the House Republican caucus, and if that’s the goal, then Obama should stay on the sidelines. The White House can't force Republicans to compromise, and associating Obama with such a measure isn't likely to broaden its base of support. After all, 94 percent of House Republicans represent districts that supported Mitt Romney, and although the president commands the support of a majority of the electorate, he's a polarizing figure who triggers reflexively partisan responses from a deeply conservative Congress. If the president took the lead, it would become even harder for the GOP to entertain the tightening of gun control—at a moment when some House Republicans might actually consider it. 

If gun control weren't already in the news, then, yes, Obama would need to get off the sidelines and advance the issue himself. But the post-Newtown political climate is giving gun control its own momentum, and it could prove to be self-sustaining. Leading Republicans have largely stayed silent on gun control after Newtown, while West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the NRA-endorsed Democrat best known for taking “dead aim” at cap and trade legislation in a campaign advertisement, announced his newfound support for a ban on high-capacity magazines and assault guns. So did Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, another NRA-endorsed Democrat, who ascended to national prominence by appealing to rural conservatives. Recent YouGov/Huffington PostABC/Washington Post, and CBS News surveys all show support for stricter gun control measures hitting or exceeding 50 percent and increasing from pre-Newtown levels. With Senators Feinstein and Lautenberg pledging to introduce bills banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, the issue doesn’t seem likely to fade soon.

Would a change of heart among pro-gun Democrats, combined with the GOP's silence and growing public support for gun control, break enough House Republicans for assault guns or high-capacity magazines? It's conceivable. If a few Republicans with strong conservative credentials did so—probably first in the Senate—more could follow. But the key is not to disrupt the political conditions that could create GOP defections on gun rights. Movement from conservative Democrats and sustained media attention on the issue is far more likely to convince a few Republicans to change their positions than a high-profile push by a polarizing president would. The president can't be completely silent on the issue, since that might disenchant Democrats. But Obama's statements must be carefully calibrated to avoid turning the issue into a classic contest between Republicans and Democrats. The president's early focus on children might be a successful frame.

If Republicans are unified against gun control after the next few weeks, which might still be the likeliest outcome, then Obama could take a larger role in hopes of preparing Democrats and the public for legislation later on. Democrats have remained silent on gun control for more than a decade, but the politics of the issue have changed and national Democrats aren't particularly vulnerable on gun-control issues. Gun control legislation won't pass so long as Democrats are unwilling to vigorously press the issue, especially since part of the decline in public support for gun control might be attributable to the decade-long silence of gun control advocates on the national stage. Democrats need to fight a battle over gun control and emerge unscathed before they'll again feel confident discussing the issue on a consistent basis, and if Obama advocates for the issue at a time when Republicans don't feel comfortable voicing their opposition, the president might move the polls and leave Democrats more confident in their ability to campaign on gun control than they have at any point this millennium.