Over the weekend, we learned that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg will spend $12 million airing ads in 13 states pushing senators to support expanded background checks for gun purchases. NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre, in his usual restrained fashion, described Bloomberg's engagement as "reckless" and "insane," but what's so remarkable is that this is something you need an ad war to accomplish. After all, universal background checks (which would extend such checks to gun shows and private sales) enjoy pretty much universal support, with polls showing around 90 percent of Americans in favor, including overwhelming majorities of Republicans and gun owners.
And yet, not only are lots of Republicans still holding back, but even some Democrats are afraid to take a position on universal background checks. Greg Sargent reports that at least five Democratic senators—Mark Pryor (AR), Mary Landrieu (LA), Kay Hagen (NC), Joe Donnelly (IN) and Heidi Heitkamp (SD)—are refusing to say where they stand on the issue. There's only one reason why: the abject, soul-gripping fear of the red-state Democrat.
There are certainly some times when a legislator would want to withhold judgment on an issue or a bill. Maybe it's highly technical, or complex and multifaceted, or something that hasn't been contemplated before, and she needs time to study it and weigh the pros and cons before making a decision. But this isn't one of those cases. Sure, there are some particulars that would need to be worked out, but at this point the question is relatively simple: Do you support requiring some kind of background check for private gun sales, or not?11. The NRA's argument against universal background checks has two parts. The first is that criminals won't get them, so why bother? By that logic, of course, there's no point in having laws against murder or robbery either. The second is that it will be an inconvenience for law-abiding gun owners, adding crushing "bureaucracy" to the simple process of adding to your arsenal. The truth, however, is that there are so many licensed gun dealers in America that you're never more than a few miles from one. I made some graphs breaking out the numbers state by state here; Mayors Against Illegal Guns (an organization funded by Bloomberg) distributed the data geographically to show that 98.4 percent of Americans live within ten miles of a gun dealer. What that means is that instead of completing your gun purchase in 60 seconds, it might take you an hour, since you'd have to go down to the gun shop and have them run a check. Unless you're buying a gun every day, that doesn't seem like that much of a burden.
2. There are some blue state Republicans too, but for some reason they don't seem to have so many visible displays of terror. Perhaps Mark Kirk and Susan Collins wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, having suffered through nightmares in which their constituents chase after them with pitchforks and torches, enraged by their refusal to support minimum-wage hikes and same-sex marriage. But somehow I doubt it. But even with the knowledge that they would have pretty much their entire constituencies behind them if they came out for universal checks, they can't bring themselves to say where they stand.
This is just one obvious case, but if you're a red-state Democrat, you have to live with this kind of fear all the time.2 Since you know your party is unpopular in your home state, you have to be constantly looking for ways you can buck the party, and worrying about the times when you support the things your party stands for. Even if your leadership understands the necessity, it has to make things a bit uncomfortable with your colleagues. You're forever worrying that the voters you represent will grow angry with you, and saying to them, in effect, "Please don't be mad at me." And the more the issue touches on "cultural" matters implicating what people see as their identities, the more fear it inspires, since the senator doesn't want to be tarred with the lethal "She's not one of us" attack in her next election.
All politicians have to worry about upsetting the folks back home, which is why they aren't, as a group, particularly courageous. But the more precarious your electoral situation is, the less freedom you have to just say what you believe. And the red-state Democrats act as though they have no freedom at all. It just seems like a terrible way to live.