The most notable thing to come out of President Obama’s speech last night—eulogizing the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut—was his unambiguous commitment to pursuing new gun regulations in the coming weeks. Granted, he didn’t use the word “gun,” but the implications were clear:
If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.
In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.
Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?
Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?
It’s hard to know what, exactly, the federal government can do to reduce the incidence of mass shootings. To a large degree, each shooting is sui generis—some shooters have been mentally ill, others haven’t. Some shooters have had concrete motivations, others, none at all. And while some shooters might have been stopped by tighter restrictions on guns and ammunition, others—like the shooter in Newtown—were able to rely on an existing and easy-to-access stockpile of weapons (in this case, his mother’s arsenal).
With all of that said, Democrats shouldn’t be afraid of running with this issue. The common wisdom in the Democratic Party is that gun regulations—whether focused around control or safety—are an electoral loser; that they alienate the middle and working-class white men who are critical in Rust Belt and Midwestern states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin.
And while there isn’t much evidence to prove that gun control cost Al Gore the 2000 presidential election—states like Kentucky and Tennessee, which Clinton-Gore won, had become more Republican across the board—many Democrats associate gun control with electoral disaster. So much so that, in recent years, it’s become common for Democrats in more rural states to tout their gun-owning bona fides—during the 2004 Democratic primary, Howard Dean touted his NRA endorsement as evidence of bipartisan appeal.
But, as Nate Cohn pointed out for The New Republic over the weekend, it’s not clear that Democrats have any votes to lose by endorsing new gun regulations. The votes who might be alienated by a renewed emphasis on gun control—rural and exurban men—have been lost to Democrats for nearly a decade, despite their utter silence on the issue. “Obama and Kerry both performed worse than Gore among conservative rural voters,” writes Cohn, “The fact is that these pro-gun voters are lost to Republicans, and probably for good.”
Indeed, the last two elections have shown decisively that Democrats can win large national victories without meaningful support from white men, and gun-owning white men in particular. The Democratic Party’s support is based in dense suburbs and urban areas, which are also the areas where gun control is most salient. Voters in Columbus, Ohio for example, almost certainly want fewer guns, not more.
There is a chance that this could jeopardize Democratic gains in states like Virginia and North Carolina, but even there, the same dynamic is at play. In both states, Democrats draw the large majority of their support from cities and suburbs, dominated by women, young people, and minorities. And in general, these aren’t groups with a strong stake in gun ownership. On the presidential level, at least, Democrats don’t need to worry about alienating their coalition.
With all of that said, the calculus is different for congressional and state-level Democrats, some of whom can’t afford to alienate traditionally gun-owning groups. But in those cases, of course, the Democratic Party’s flexibility is a big asset.