Wimps no more: The Democrats are targeting the gun lobby

     (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)

    (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)

    On the gun lobby issue, it’s stunning how the Democrats have morphed from wimps to warriors.

    Unless you’re hip to the history of Democratic wimpishness, you can’t fully appreciate what happened in that first presidential debate — when Hillary Clinton said: “We have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on too long, and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA.” And when Martin O’Malley said: “It’s time to stand up and pass comprehensive gun-safety as a nation.” And when Bernie Sanders played down his early pro-gun votes by boasting about his D-minus career rating from the NRA.

    In recent decades, Democratic candidates didn’t dare say such things in public. Assailing the gun lobby, suggesting that we might do a wee bit more to tame our bang-bang epidemic … those were deemed to be major no-nos, tantamount to political suicide. But clearly, these Democrats have sensed a shift in the prevailing winds — as recorded in the polls. Rest assured that Hillary, who’s known for being cautious, has read the polls.

    It’s true, according to the Pew Research Center, that Americans are basically split when asked whether “gun control” is more important than “gun rights.” (50 percent say the former; 47 percent, the latter.) But when people are queried about specific reform proposals, they’re thumbs-up in a landslide. In Pew’s latest poll, 85 percent favor expanded background checks. In Quinnipiac’s latest poll, support for that reform is 93 percent — and that includes 90 percent support from rank and file Republicans. Pew says that 57 percent support a new ban on assault weapons, and that a 40 percent plurality thinks the NRA has too much influence.

    The political zeitgeist has shifted since the children were slaughtered at the Sandy Hook school. Hillary is promising that, as president, she’ll take executive action to expand background checks if Congress fails to act. I never thought I’d hear such a thing on the campaign trail; until now, that was almost as improbable as the concept of the Cubs playing in the World Series.

    The Democrats’ wimp phase began in 1994, when Newt Gingrich’s Republicans seized the House in a landslide. House Democratic incumbents were swept from office for a host of reasons (most notably, for raising taxes in a contentious ’93 budget deal), but many believed that the NRA had successfully targeted a dozen Democrats who had voted to ban assault weapons.

    Bill Clinton later wrote in his memoir, “The NRA could rightly claim to have made Gingrich the House Speaker.” That’s debatable — Newt’s team picked up 56 seats; the NRA shifted maybe 12 of those seats — but what matters is that Bill believed it. He steered clear of the gun issue in his ’96 re-election. Al Gore did the same during the 2000 campaign. Early on, Gore brought it up a few times — at one point telling CNN that “we have a flood of handguns that are too deadly” — but later he dumped it entirely, for fear of alienating blue-collar gun-loving white guys.

    Gore lost those guys anyway; Democratic leaders decided that the only way to win them back was to mute all talk about guns. In a speech to party brethren eight months after Gore’s loss, Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe emphasized that 48 percent of voters in the ’00 election owned guns. He said, “We’ve got to figure this issue out.” Which was code for saying: “Let’s not talk about the issue at all.”

    So it went.

    The ’94 assault weapons ban expired on schedule in 2004, with nary a whisper of protest from congressional Democrats. When 33 people were slaughtered at Virginia Tech in 2007, most Democrats hewed to the vow of silence. Hillary said little about guns in her ’08 bid. Neither did Barack Obama, especially after he was busted for saying at a fundraiser that rural folks “cling to guns.” And in ’09, when his attorney general, Eric Holder, suggested that the assault weapons ban should be restored, Holder was told to zip it. Which he did, while duly uttering, “I respect the Second Amendment.”

    And Obama said little about guns during his ’12 re-election bid. Then came Sandy Hook, and the congressional bid for expanded background checks — and the NRA’s kibosh on reform, in defiance of landslide public support. The wind shift has also been abetted by the emergence (finally) of a sizeable gun reform movement, financed in part by Michael Bloomberg’s super PAC, Independence USA. Democrats are more comfortable talking about reform if they know that the NRA is getting pushback at ground level.

    For Hillary, there’s one other factor. Her strategists have decided that there’s no point chasing after blue-collar gun-loving white guys. They bailed on Obama in both of his elections — and he won handily without them. Hillary’s team has calculated that she can win the presidency by simply doubling down on the Obama coalition: upscale educated whites, urbanites, African Americans, Latinos (they support gun control more than the general population), and women (they support a new assault weapons ban, and stricter controls on gun ownership, far more than men do).

    Pro-gun Republicans profess to be thrilled that Hillary is talking up the issue. Grover Norquist, the conservative activist, crafted this gem earlier this week: “When (Democrats) start to say that people with guns are the problem … that people with guns are somehow connected to mass murders, that’s what turns voters off.”

    Wow, did Grover actually suggest that people with guns are not somehow connected to mass murders?! Indeed he did. If Hillary can’t feast on howlers like that, she should quit now.

    By the way, did you know that roughly one American is shot each week by a toddler? Yup. Perhaps the NRA will go to bat for the youngest members of our Well-regulated Militia.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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