As the recent election results in Virginia and New Jersey showed, Democrats have a growing problem with rural and working-class voters. They also have a problem with Latino voters and independents and non-college-educated women. That’s a lot of problems that they need to solve before 2022, or risk a historic midterm rebuke that could cost them both chambers of Congress as well as multiple state Houses and county and municipal contests from coast to coast.
The reasons for these defections are numerous, with most of the post-election analysis focused on schools (and wedge issues such as “critical race theory”), the economy (rising inflation) and the response to the Covid pandemic. But if Democrats want to repair their relationships with these key voter groups there’s another issue that can do it. It’s not climate change or Covid vaccines or even child tax credits. It’s guns.
Democrats need to learn how to talk about firearm rights and crime issues without demonizing millions of voters who own guns. What Democrats don’t realize is that the very voters they are losing by the tens of thousands each cycle are also the people who account for the largest surge of new firearm sales.
There are some 140 million gun owners in this country, and some 10 to 12 million of them purchased their first firearm in the past two years. But it’s not just the number of new gun owners that’s important. It’s who they are. Data show the biggest increases in gun purchases are among women and people of color — some of the very groups that Democrats have long relied on to form winning coalitions and who lately have shown signs of disenchantment with the party. Moreover, 48 percent of self-defined political independents own guns or live with someone who does. Most of these purchases are handguns (not assault rifles, which capture so much media attention) and most of them are driven by concerns of personal safety.
These voters may be animated by many different issues, but their new status as gun owners places them in a group that is specifically attuned to how candidates from both parties talk about gun rights. Most gun owners define themselves as Republicans but in a tight race, where a margin of 0.5 percent to 2 percent matters, a relatively small number of Democratic and independent gun owners can alter important electoral outcomes at both the state and national levels. In New Jersey, for example, Ed Durr, a truck driver and political neophyte, just beat state Senate President Steve Sweeney by 2,300 votes. Durr said he decided to challenge Sweeney because he couldn’t get a concealed carry permit. Former Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s gun control message, which started with a ban on the sale of assault weapons, was heard loud and clear. A 1 percent shift and he would have won.
It’s worth noting that the right to carry is at the heart of one of the most important gun rights cases to come before the U.S. Supreme Court. Recently, justices heard oral arguments in New York Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, which concerns a challenge to New York’s severely restrictive law on issuing concealed carry permits. Justices signaled that they might well overturn the law, a blow to the most anti-gun voices on the left.
Democrats can continue to oppose gun owners’ rights to carry their weapons safely and legally, alienating an increasingly important segment of society and their potential voting electorate, or they can reposition themselves in support of gun owners on reforms aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
Contrary to what the cultural warriors at the scandal-ridden NRA say, it is ultimately in the interests of gun owners for both parties to focus on the policy problems surrounding the misuse of guns and enthusiastically support the lawful and safe handling by adult Americans who choose to own and carry firearms. Refocusing the debate on policy solutions to violence, not regurgitating knee-jerk slogans such as “banning assault weapons,” can provide the margin of victory for Democrats in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and make them far more competitive in Florida, Ohio and Missouri.
If the Democratic Party believes that the continuation of our republic requires maintaining a majority in the House or Senate in 2022 (and I would argue it does), their candidates need to pivot in support of gun rights in order to win. The NRA — now the “National Republican Association” — is unraveling, creating an opportunity for many Democrats to recast themselves as centrists with initiatives on rigorous firearm policy, not to score internecine primary victories, but to secure election success in this fragile democratic republic of ours.
Powerful Democratic Party activists will almost certainly resist moving in this new direction; after all, there are deep-pocketed ideological interest groups on the left just as there are on the right. The crucial question is, do the Democrats want to prevail or just play to their base?
History offers some evidence for the effectiveness of a retooled gun message.
Gun owning voters were key in the Republican tsunami of 1994 that ended the Democrats’ control of the House since 1955. Since that moment, the GOP has maintained its hold on the issue, despite a series of horrific mass shootings that have inflamed gun control advocates’ calls for weapons bans.
But Democrats have shown that if they want to, they can talk about guns in less restrictive ways without political Armageddon. And it works for them at the polls. Perhaps the best and most recent example was in 2008 when presidential candidate Barack Obama adroitly avoided the divisive gun issue.
That year, the Supreme Court ruled in the District of Columbia v. Heller case that Washington’s handgun ban violated the Second Amendment. Justices argued the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to possess firearms independent of service in a state militia, and also to use firearms for traditionally lawful purposes, including self-defense within the home. Obama declared during his campaign, “I’m not going to take your guns away.” He successfully downplayed guns despite his offhand primary campaign comment about rural communities clinging to their guns and bibles in key battleground states. That intellectual pivot alone made a difference. He carried Florida, Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina by a few points.
But Obama’s deft positioning in 2008 has proved to be the exception.
After every high visibility mass shooting — Sandy Hook, Parkland and Las Vegas, among them — there are predictable calls to do something: ban this, regulate that. But aside from a few minor executive orders, inertia takes hold and nothing happens. Since Democratic leadership ill-advisedly continues hyping catchy platitudes rather than encouraging rigorous and careful drafting of legislative policy that zeroes in meticulously on the problem, why would anyone expect different electoral outcomes?
In 2016, gun owners went the extra mile to defeat Hillary Clinton. After all, they knew where she stood.
They really didn’t need to know too much about Donald Trump. The National Rifle Association spent more money endorsing Trump than their entire legislative budget 20 years earlier. But ironically, gun owners have gotten little for their fealty to the GOP.
On all the most consequential issues for gun owners — national concealed carry and import restrictions on “sporting use” firearms made overseas, for example — the Trump administration scorecard looks no different than the Democratic administration that preceded it. It achieved no legislative results even when it had control over all three branches in 2017 and 2018. So much for the vaunted lobbying might (or commitment) of the NRA’s senior leaders.
But despite this Republican weakness, Democrats (who increasingly refuse to understand the complexities of the gun culture) have allowed the Republicans to cast themselves as the sole defenders of the “pro-gun owner” faith. In doing so, they make a vital mistake. Long-time gun owners are conditioned to get bashed by Democrats. New gun owners are where Democrats need to focus their attention and readjust the fulcrum of their views if they want to survive the coming storm.
The Second Amendment is viewed by millions of voters as a fail-safe clause protecting all other rights and liberties. Many gun-owning voters hold inviolate a belief that a government which cannot or will not protect its citizens has no right denying them the means to protect themselves.
Asian Americans, Hispanics and most especially women are buying guns because they feel threatened.
Hate-filled rhetoric on social media and a few high-visibility news incidents validate citizens’ concerns about feeling vulnerable. Does owning a firearm actually make you safer? That depends, but it certainly makes you feel better protected.
Democrats might not like guns or think the Second Amendment deserves the same protection as the First, but if the Supreme Court rules against New York’s concealed carry law, it would be foolish of the Democrats to continue to promote a sweeping anti-gun platform.
Let me propose a much smarter platform for them to adopt.
Democrats can start by supporting a sensible “national carry” program. They can fund firearm safety education. They can speak out regarding the need to have professional law enforcement running agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, not political hacks with axes to grind. They can support the import of long guns for self-defense (currently only “sporting use” is allowed).
After they put these items up front, they can also talk about background checks in all commercial transfers of guns, and some other fixes that can benefit gun owners and law enforcement professionals. They need to know that new gun owners are listening to them closely while the acolytes of stringent gun control have nowhere else to go anyway.
Few politicians have the guts to change paradigms but holding the reins of power demands critical reexamination of long held positions when those positions cost them power.
Gun owners can make a huge difference in fighting for the winning centrist majority position in our fractured nation. What they need, however, is cooperative leadership from Democrats, not just Republicans, leadership that can understand how to make both the policy and the politics work in unison.