After they took a beating in the 2002 midterm elections, congressional Democrats vowed to stop shading their differences with Republicans and draw sharper distinctions for voters. Focus groups and polls had dulled the party’s message—it was time to fight back.
But, when the federal assault-weapons ban expired this week, few Democrats had much to say about it. A few anti-gun diehards, such as Senators Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein, staged press conferences. But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi offered only token protests. According to House and Senate Democratic staffers, kicking up a public fuss was never really a serious option. “I never heard much discussion about it in leadership meetings or in the caucus,” says one Democratic House leadership aide.
And no wonder. There were good reasons for Hill Democrats to take a pass on challenging the ban. First, there’s the party’s nightmarish recent history with gun control—a record of few accomplishments and several electoral disasters (including the 2000 presidential race, in which gun-control issues may have cost Al Gore Arkansas, West Virginia, and Tennessee). Then there’s the fact that the assault-weapons ban itself was ineffectual and not worth a risky fight. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Democrats are still grappling with the vexing challenge of appealing to pro-gun-control voters while eluding the wrath of the National Rifle Association (NRA). In other words, many Democrats probably remained quiet simply because they weren’t sure what to say.
It’s hard to overstate how scarred the Democrats remain by the ban’s original passage. The federal ban on 19 types of semiautomatic weapons, such as AK-47s and Tec-9 pistols, was a liberal crusade in Bill Clinton’s first term. Clinton knew the NRA would mount furious opposition, but, as he wrote in My Life, “[S]urely we had not reached the point where the only way to keep congressional seats safe was to leave the American people and police officers in greater danger.” In 1994, Clinton, resisting pleas from House Democratic leaders like Tom Foley and Dick Gephardt to abandon the ban, managed to win its passage. Foley and Gephardt “were right and I was wrong,” Clinton concedes. That fall, Republicans, with the help of the NRA, swept to power in the House. The NRA bragged that it had knocked off 19 of 24 Democrats on its hit list and, as Clinton writes, “could rightly claim to have made [Newt] Gingrich the House Speaker.” (For good measure, that fall, a crazed man furious over the ban drove to Washington from Colorado and strafed the White House with an assault rifle.) So it’s not hard to understand why the assault-weapons issue was “bringing back nightmares” this year, as one Democratic aide jokes.
This time around, however, Democrats had little real power to extend the ban. Although, by most counts, it enjoyed majority support in the Senate, Democrats assumed that Republicans would simply pull any bill to which they tried to attach an assault-weapons amendment, as they have done numerous times this year on other issues. What’s more, a Senate extension would be DOA in the GOP House.
That’s no great tragedy. Even supporters of the ban concede it was riddled with loopholes. Thousands of banned guns legally remained in circulation, grandfathered from pre-1994 days. Meanwhile, gun manufacturers made superficial changes in banned models to circumvent the law and produced them by the hundreds of thousands. “We agree that the 1994 law is ineffective,” Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center told The Washington Post recently. “Good public policy would be to institute an effective assault weapons ban.” But, so long as Republicans control the House, where GOP leaders are closely aligned with the NRA, that’s simply not going to happen.
Couldn’t congressional Democrats use the ban’s expiration to pummel Republican leaders, as John Kerry did this week to George W. Bush? In theory, yes. According to some polls, more than two-thirds of the voting public support the ban. But, like support for “the environment,” support for gun control tends to be wide and shallow. Few people base their votes on it. By contrast, most Democrats feel gun issues may swing otherwise sympathetic voters—especially blue-collar men—against them. “We lost a number of voters who, on almost every other issue, realized they’d be better off with Al Gore,” Joe Lieberman told USA Today in 2001.
This presents Democrats with a communications dilemma. How to reach suburban pro-gun-control women without frightening blue-collar, anti-gun-control men who would normally support them? Democrats typically argue that what they need is a better way of “talking about” gun control. The problem is that, after years of debating the question, Democrats seem no closer to a good answer.
The preferred tactic at the moment is for rural and southern Democrats to show off their love of guns and make nice with the NRA. A strategy memo produced for Democratic candidates earlier this year argued that, based on data from centrist Democratic pollster Mark Penn, Democrats should be “forcefully backing the right to own a gun.” And several pro-gun Democratic candidates in close races—including freshman House incumbents Ben Chandler of Kentucky and Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota and Senate challengers Chris John of Louisiana and Brad Carson of Oklahoma—are hoping their records will keep the NRA at bay.
But this method is unreliable. Several Democrats who harped on gun owners’ rights were defeated in 2002. Missouri Senator Jean Carnahan, for instance, made a show of being photographed shooting skeet. South Carolina candidate Alex Sanders—a hunter and NRA member—practically wore a holster on the stump. And, in Colorado, Democrat Tom Strickland cast himself as a friend of gun owners. Yet all three candidates were opposed and thrashed by the NRA. Several Democratic House candidates, such as Maine’s Michael Michaud, successfully ran on pro-gun platforms without NRA support. But, overall, 230 of 246 NRA-backed House contenders prevailed. Earlier this year, meanwhile, a top NRA official warned that pro-gun Democrats “are posers and fakes, and they want your guns.”
Given these warning signs, John Kerry has been testing a more aggressive approach. The latest tactic: turning gun control into a homeland security issue. “In the Al Qaeda manual on terror, they were telling people to go out and buy assault weapons, to come to America and buy assault weapons,” Kerry said earlier this week. Some gun-controllers are pinning their hopes on this new approach. Richard Aborn, the former president of the Brady Center to Stop Gun Violence and now president of a group called Stop the NRA, points to a recent survey by Democratic pollster Doug Schoen that shows how Bush’s lead over Kerry on terrorism issues drops by as much as ten points in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania after the connection is explained to voters. Aborn says the assault-weapons ban might have been saved if only gun-controllers had “demonstrate[d] to the nation the linkage between assault weapons and terrorism.”
That sounds a little too good to be true. Which may be why Kerry has seized the issue to attack Bush in other ways as well—on character and populist grounds. Whereas many Democratic candidates in conservative areas want to downplay their differences with Bush, Kerry is looking for contrasts:”George Bush gave police officers his word that he would keep the ban. But, when it came time to extend it, Bush’s powerful friends in the gun lobby asked him to look the other way. He just couldn’t resist, and he said sure. “It’s an opportunity not just to turn George Bush’s broken promise into a character issue,” says Kerry spokesman David Wade, “but to make it clear Bush isn’t honest with the American people, [and] to run to the president’s right” on a security-related issue.
Unfortunately, it may be that no magic talking points can counteract the NRA’s awesome firepower. And, despite occasional symbolic efforts like the Million Mom March in 2000, Democrats simply have no organizational equivalent. “We in the gun-control community have not matched the grassroots organizing at the local level of the NRA,” says Aborn. Once again, the gun-rights crowd seems to enjoy a monopoly on intensity.
Which brings to mind another rueful quote from Bill Clinton’s memoir. “After the  election,” Clinton writes, “I had to face the fact that the law-enforcement groups and other supporters of responsible gun legislation, though they represented the majority of Americans, simply could not protect their friends in Congress from the NRA. The gun lobby outspent, out-organized, outfought, and out-demagogued them.” Ten years later, nothing has changed. And Democrats still aren’t sure what to do about it.