Why this moment for gun politics is differentMarch 24, 2021
If fallout from the nation’s two most recent mass shootings runs to form, calls for stricter gun laws on the left will meet resistance from the right. Washington will gridlock, and the media will move on.
But the current debate is taking place under an uncommon alignment of the political stars, creating a unique moment in the arc of gun politics. Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time since 2011. Public polling reflects widespread support for background checks and other gun measures, while the National Rifle Association — a traditional power in Republican Party politics — has been crippled by financial problems and infighting.
For the gun reform movement — a centerpiece of the Democratic Party’s agenda for at least a quarter century — the question this week has become, if not now, when?
“This is the moment,” said Shannon Watts, founder of the advocacy group Moms Demand Action. “The NRA is sidelined by bankruptcy, and we have a gun-sense trifecta in the White House, the Senate and the House.”
The shootings in Boulder, Colo., on Monday and in Georgia last week did not just restart America’s on-again, off-again hostilities over guns. The November election tilted the field in Democrats’ favor. More than after any shooting in the past decade, the party’s response to the killings in Colorado and Georgia will serve as a measure of how much Democrats can achieve when they occupy the commanding heights.
It’s a pivotal moment for gun politics. The history of midterm elections suggests Democrats are at risk of losing the House next year, shrinking their window for legislative victories.
“The time is definitely now,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun-control group Giffords. “We can’t wait.”
It’s in no small part due to the changing demographics and voting behavior of Georgia and Colorado that gun reform is on the table in Washington at all. It was the January runoff elections in Georgia, only recently a solidly Republican state, that gave Democrats their functional majority in the Senate.
Colorado, now reliably Democratic after years as a swing state, sent John Hickenlooper to the Senate in November, defeating the Republican incumbent, Cory Gardner, by nearly 10 percentage points. And in Colorado, in particular, there are reasons for Democrats to find optimism in the gun reform movement. Nowhere near a bastion of far-left politics, lawmakers there nevertheless have enacted stricter gun laws in recent years. So had the city of Boulder, where a locally passed assault weapons ban was blocked by a judge earlier this month. Lawmakers are discussing potential legislation in response — to allow cities to enact more stringent gun laws than the state.
Tom Sullivan, a Colorado state lawmaker who sought elected office after his son, Alex, was killed in the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, said the climate surrounding gun legislation has “obviously” shifted — as evidenced by his own election and those of other survivors of victims of gun violence, including Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia, whose teenage son was shot to death in 2012. Gun control was a winning issue for Democrats in some congressional swing districts nationally in the midterm elections in 2018.
“We can run on this issue, and we can win elections on this issue,” Sullivan said. “Quite obviously, the tone has changed.”
Democrats, of course, lack a filibuster-proof majority. And at least one Senate Democrat, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, hails from one of the most pro-gun states in the nation. But even if legislation ultimately fails in Washington, holding a vote on a major gun reform bill could be politically significant ahead of the midterm elections next year. For Democrats, said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster, such legislation “would be, at least to some extent, to get a vote on it and be able to use it in suburban districts” in Colorado and across the country.
Still, Colorado is also the state of Lauren Boebert, the gun-toting congresswoman who said after the Boulder shooting that she would not “blame society at large for the sick actions of one man and I will not allow lawbreakers to dictate the rights of law-abiding citizens.” And she is far from alone in her conference. While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he will force a vote on background checks, the legislation’s prospects of drawing the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster appear dim.
In Colorado as it is nationally, said Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado Republican Party chair and longtime party strategist, “It’s a complicated issue for both parties.”
“It’s a thorny issue in the suburbs for Republicans,” he said. “It’s a thorny issue for Democrats in the rural areas.”
Gun control, like almost everything else, took a back seat in last year’s elections to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and then-President Donald Trump’s handling of it. With fewer people gathering, public mass shootings were down last year, too, according to The Associated Press.
But as people have begun to reemerge in public, a gunman killed eight people at three Atlanta-area spas last week. On Monday, a shooter killed 10 people at a grocery store in Boulder — including at least one person who was in line for a vaccine. And for the first time in a decade, advocates of stricter gun laws had a Democratic president and a Democratic-controlled Congress — though narrowly in the Senate — to turn to.
“As we begin to emerge from Covid, there is this emerging sense of foreboding now among Americans … that what we’re going to return to is going to be constant headlines about gun violence,” Ambler said. “We can’t let that be the American experience. That can’t be how we as a nation emerge from the trauma of Covid. We can’t go reeling from pandemic to epidemic.”
He said, “In some way, shape or form, the Senate as an institution needs to respond to this crisis.”
Mathew Littman, a Democratic strategist and executive director of the gun reform group 97 Percent, said of universal background checks that “it’s ridiculous that it hasn’t happened. Absolutely ridiculous.”
The gun control debate has put more pressure on Democrats to abandon the legislative filibuster in the Senate, broadening the range of constituencies lobbying for the change. Lonnie Phillips, whose daughter was killed in Aurora and who now advocates on behalf of survivors of gun violence, said, “The best thing that can happen right now — the one thing I would give everything up for — is get rid of the filibuster so we can pass some laws.”
But Phillips and other gun control advocates are frustrated not only with the Senate, but with President Joe Biden, who has yet to fulfill a campaign promise to take unilateral action on gun violence. Phillips’ wife, Sandy, said that “we were so hopeful that the president would follow through on his promises on Day One. And that hasn’t happened.”
A first-hand witness to political difficulties surrounding the issue, Biden was an author of the now-expired assault weapons ban while in the Senate in 1994. Later, as vice president, he assumed an instrumental role in a major push for gun control legislation following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, the failure of which in the Senate marked one of the most significant defeats of President Barack Obama’s second term.
Biden said Tuesday that he does not want to “wait another minute” to address gun violence, calling on Congress to act while his administration considers measures he could take on his own.
If Democrats seizing control of Washington raised the expectations of gun reform advocates, it will also make any defeat that much more painful.
Looking back over 12 years of disappointment on the issue, Lonnie Phillips said, “Obama couldn’t get it done, and of course, Trump made it worse, if that’s possible,” adding that Biden “hasn’t lived up to his promise.”
“Yeah,” he said. “We’re at a frustrating point.”