It’s easy to dismiss the sit-in launched by House Democrats this week as nothing more than political theater. After all, the two gun control measures they are pushing have no chance of passage, and one of them—relying on the flawed terrorist watchlist to prevent gun-buying—is an assault on civil liberties. Yet calling the protest a stunt misses the larger point, which is that Democrats are on the offensive on guns and clearly think this is a winning issue against the Republicans. After all, party leaders don’t condone political theater on issues in which they think the public is against them.
This is one reason why mainstream Republicans were so aghast at Ted Cruz and the Tea Party brigade for shutting down the government in 2013. In contrast, Democrats were united in their efforts, led by representatives John Lewis and Katherine Clark, to break protocol to call attention to the gun control issue. This is a marked change from a long period in which Democrats were on the defensive on guns—a period stretching from the triumph of the Republicans in Congress in 1994 to the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. For nearly two decades the Democrats have been in retreat on gun control, and now they consider it a key part of the party’s agenda. What changed?
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton had shrewdly folded in gun control with a tough-on-crime agenda, which helped him win the presidency in 1992 and pass the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994. But politically Clinton was vulnerable on these issues because his coalition—and indeed his very political raison d’être—was based on an appeal to working class whites, especially in rural areas and in the South. The stunning loss of Congress in 1994 was partly blamed on an anti–gun control backlash.
That was certainly Al Gore’s view in 2000, when he deliberately avoided gun control for fear of alienating conservative Democrats in key swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. As Noam Scheiber noted in The New Republic in 2001, “Since these areas were chock-full of gun-toting union members, Team Gore decided that gun control would hurt the vice president in the states he needed most.” Hillary Clinton followed in Gore’s footsteps in 2008, so much so that her rival Barack Obama mocked her by saying, “She is running around talking about how this is an insult to sportsman, how she values the Second Amendment. She’s talking like she’s Annie Oakley.”
But Obama wasn’t that much more eager to take up gun control, and it was only a string of incidents—the Gabby Giffords shooting in 2011, the Aurora attack in 2012, and the shock of the Sandy Hook massacre—that led the president to prioritize gun control. This initially seemed quixotic, since the Republican-controlled House (joined by a Republican-controlled Senate in 2014) wasn’t willing to take up the issue. But if Obama couldn’t change the laws, he could change his party, which has followed his lead in embracing gun control.
The most notable example of this is Hillary Clinton, who has shed her Annie Oakley past and used gun control as a wedge issue against Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. There was some opportunism in the move, since it was one of the few issues in which she could tack to the left of Sanders, but it also reflected Clinton’s sense of where the party’s base was.
The Democrats have been able to re-embrace gun control because the party’s demographics have changed. The conservative white Democrats Bill Clinton was so desperate to hold on to have long since abandoned the party. Ohio and Pennsylvania remain swing states, but Democrats under Obama have found they can win these states by appealing to the diverse cities and the moderate suburbs rather than the conservative rural areas. The Obama coalition, which is what Hillary Clinton hopes to recreate, is far more receptive to gun control than the Clinton coalition of the 1990s.
The most successful lobby groups are the ones with bipartisan support, which allows them to act as gatekeepers for both parties. The NRA had the luxury of being a bipartisan lobby group for much of the 1990s, and even into the early years of the Obama era. But this is changing. The Democratic Party, at least as it is represented in Congress, is smaller and more ideologically liberal than it used to be. Democrats are embracing gun control as a core element of the party’s identity—the question going forward is if they can grow and retain that identity at the same time.