They were just another flurry in the endless blizzard of Washington press releases. But together, the notices revealed important clues to how Democrats are now reading the political winds on gun reform.
On Thursday, hours before a gunman killed nine people at Umpqua Community College, Republican Mike Thompson of California and Democrat Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut, the chair and vice-chair of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, made public a bipartisan letter signed by 143 members of the House calling on outgoing Speaker John Boehner to bring gun safety legislation up for a vote. (“Our children should be safe in schools,” the letter read in part.) The organizers of the letter had spent weeks gathering the signatures, but did not press the issue in the immediate aftermath of the attack. A source tells The Trace that the initial reticence can be attributed to a reluctance to inject gun policy into the Republican leadership races that have been triggered by Boehner’s pending resignation: Hard-right reps are making bids for the controlling party’s top posts, and some congress members who advocate tougher firearms laws have been wary of baiting those GOP leadership hopefuls into out-Second Amendment-ing each other by vowing to squash any and all gun reform bills.
By midday Friday, that brief hesitance was replaced by an unmistakable assertiveness, as Thompson put out a new release, this one bearing a stinging headline: “Congressional Republicans Can’t Keep Sitting on Their Hands While Mass Shootings Become Commonplace.” Later that afternoon, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi entered the fray, calling upon Boehner to form a select committee on gun violence (the same sort of panel convened to investigate Benghazi and Planned Parenthood), which would have 60 days to issue its recommendations — “in time for a vote before the third anniversary of the Newtown shooting” in December.
Passing immediate gun violence legislation is not the goal of this week’s push by Democrats. The goal is to draw increasingly stark contrasts on the issue, while also creating a new corps of single-issue gun reform voters.”
Pro-reformers would not win a vote on a bill creating universal background checks (as legislation co-authored by Thompson and Republican Congressman Peter King of New York would do), and other serious gun safety measures now stalled in the House would fare no better. If another Democrat wins the White House in 2016 and the party regains the majority in the Senate, federal gun safety legislation would still likely remain doomed for at least another few years, at least if current projections hold and Republicans, as expected, preserve their House majority. But passing immediate gun violence legislation is not the goal of this week’s push by Democrats. The objective is to draw increasingly stark contrasts on the issue, while also creating a new corps of single-issue gun reform voters.
That’s what President Obama is trying to do when he talks unabashedly of politicizing mass shootings and vows to raise the subject of gun violence and the need for new gun laws “on a regular basis.” It’s a strategy shared by Hillary Clinton, who had this to say to a Boston station on Thursday:
I’m going to make this a voting issue, because what the NRA does in their single-minded, absolutist theology about the Second Amendment being sacrosanct, when we know that every constitutional right and amendment can be tailored in an appropriate way without breaching the Constitution, but what they do is to so intimidate and scare legislators because they make it into a single issue for voting. I’m going to try to do everything I can as President to raise up an equally large and vocal group that is going to prove to be a counterbalance. And we’re going to tell legislators, do not be afraid.
With CNN calling gun reform “Joe Biden’s unfinished quest,” it’s a safe bet that the Vice President, who was tasked with the administration’s response to Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, would also press the issue should he jump into the presidential race.
The idea that incumbents and candidates can go on offense on gun violence prevention is not a new one — in Virginia, Terry McAuliffe ran for governor on what one state firearms group called a “rabidly anti-gun” platform, and won handily on the National Rifle Association’s home turf. What does seem new is the prominence of calls for regulation from the highest ranks of the Democratic party, and reform strategists’ confidence that they are poised to win the long game on guns.
That thesis will get its first test less than a month from now, with Virginia again the proving ground. The state holds legislative elections this year, and Democrats will use the issue to try to flip a few seats. Look for lessons from those efforts to then be applied in the campaign war rooms of 2016.
More arguments and ideas of note as coverage of the Umpqua Community College killings progresses through a third day:
- “We Can’t Predict Who Will Commit a Mass Shooting. Gun Control Is the Other Way Out.” That’s the message a notably frustrated Paul Applebaum, a Columbia University psychiatrist who has studied gun violence, delivered to New York magazine’s Science of Us blog when one of its writers got him on the phone.
- Politicians who oppose restrictions on the supply of guns are “betting people’s lives” on the “hunch” that mental illness and American cultural depravity are the key causes of gun violence. Strong words, to be sure. But William Saletan backs up his conclusion with clear-eyed logic in this Slate piece.
- Breaking news desks have now covered so many mass shootings that at least one has a template that writers and editors take out and fill in when the latest murders occur. Polly Mosendz explains Newsweek’s gun massacre routine in an essay on Medium.
[Photo: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik]