Gun control isn’t as risky for Democrats as it used to be


Volunteers pray over white handmade crosses memorializing the victims of a mass shooting which left at least 22 people dead on August 5, 2019 in El Paso, Texas.

Mario Tama | Getty Images

As he prepared to retire in 2011, liberal Rep. Barney Frank reiterated a longstanding political warning: gun control is a “great loser” for many fellow Democrats.

It made sense then. The 2010 House Republican wave had just wiped out Democrats in 51 rural House districts – the places most resistant to restrictions on gun ownership.

But Frank’s warning doesn’t make sense anymore. Today, congressional Democrats have significantly more motivation and capacity to pressure Republicans on the issue.

The capacity comes from control of the House. With the gavel she regained at the beginning of this year Speaker Nancy Pelosi can force floor votes on gun restrictions that Republican predecessors blocked, from strengthened background checks to an assault weapons ban.

The motivation comes from the composition of Pelosi’s House majority. America’s decades-long political realignment, accelerated lately by Presidents Obama and Trump, has replaced the dwindling ranks of Democratic conservatives with moderates and liberals eager to act against gun violence.

Data on the population density of House districts, compiled by David Montgomery for CityLab, documents the shift. In the 2009-11 Congress, during Pelosi’s previous speakership, Democrats from rural, suburban and urban districts each accounted for roughly one-third of the party’s House caucus.

Since then, the rural proportion has shriveled to one in seven Democratic seats. Democrats representing suburban areas, who provided most of the party’s 2018 gains, now make up half the caucus.

That new political geography reflects evolving constituencies on both sides. Women, college-educated whites, non-whites and young voters now set the Democratic agenda.

By contrast, Republicans increasingly rely on blue-collar whites who see gun restrictions as hostile incursions on the culture of their communities. Three-fourths of House Republicans now represent less-densely populated rural areas.

House votes underscore the growing uniformity within each party. In 1993, when President Bill Clinton won passage of mandatory background checks through the Brady Bill, one-third of minority Republicans voted yes while one-fourth of majority Democrats voted no.

This February, when the House passed strengthened background check legislation, just two of 235 Democrats voted no. Only eight Republicans – 4% of the GOP caucus – voted yes.

One of those eight, Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, has since announced his retirement. So have 11 of his GOP colleagues, including fellow Texans representing suburbs of Dallas and Houston.

Those retirements – all from states Trump carried in 2016 – show how concerns of suburban voters nationwide have grown distinct enough to offset regional influences. The 50 suburban seats House Republicans still hold offer more targets for Democratic pressure on guns and other cultural touchstones.

How the landscape changed

Beyond political shifts, the rising drumbeat of real-world tragedy has propelled the gun-safety issue. Of the 40 deadliest U.S. mass shootings since 1949, 28 have occurred in the last 20 years.

The financial woes, organizational chaos and declining reputation of the National Rifle Association also play a role. The NRA poses a less forbidding threat to defiant lawmakers than a generation ago.

That doesn’t make new gun restrictions risk-free. Democratic leaders have moved cautiously since the Dayton and El Paso massacres.

So far, they’ve pressed the GOP-led Senate to take up their already-passed background check proposals rather than pushing new ones such as an assault weapons ban. “Not sure we have the votes yet,” a member of the House leadership told me.

“It’s going to require a level of discipline that’s not always in evidence,” said Democratic pollster Diane Feldman. She warned Democrats against suggesting an all-out assault on “gun culture” as opposed to discrete safety measures.

That caution applies particularly for Democrats in the Senate, which by its structure enhances the clout of less-populous states. Having surrendered their Obama-era majority through losses in Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota and West Virginia, among others, Senate Democrats aim to win it back in 2020 on battlegrounds with strong rural cultures including Alabama, Georgia, Maine and North Carolina.

Even there, Democratic campaign veterans see a more inviting landscape. In Pennsylvania, traditionally culturally conservative, GOP Sen. Pat Toomey has aligned himself with the growing Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs by sponsoring background check legislation.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell has blocked Senate action on the House-passed background check proposals. Under pressure Monday, McConnell directed three committee chairs to undertake bipartisan discussions on gun violence, insisting, “Senate Republicans are prepared to do our part.”

That reflects what Democrats see as a shifting balance of political energy, with conservatives opposing new gun restrictions no longer boasting greater levels of commitment and mobilization than supporters.

“The energy is at least as great, if not greater, on the pro-gun safety side,” said Democratic strategist Geoff Garin. “The focus right now is on people who are standing in the way.”

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