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Guns are not a winning issue for Democrats

Bouquets are stack up in front of crosses

Bouquets are stack up in front of crosses put up for victims along the temporary fence line outside the parking lot of a King Soopers grocery store, the site of a mass shooting in which 10 people died, in Boulder, Colo. Credit: AP/David Zalubowski

Gun control is back on the national agenda. While the killings in Georgia two weeks ago mostly prompted dialogue about motives and anti-Asian hate crimes, the murder of 10 last week in Colorado led President Joe Biden to urge Congress not "to wait another minute" before acting on gun regulation proposals, including a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.

The urgency is understandable. But from a political standpoint, Democrats would be better off focusing on parts of their agenda that have more realistic prospects of success. It's not just that the odds are low for passing even modest gun-control legislation. It's that the kinds of measures that are politically feasible would have little effect without policing reform, while those that would save large numbers of lives are politically toxic.

For eight years, between John Kerry's defeat in 2004 and Barack Obama's re-election in 2012, progressive leaders were pretty successful in keeping the gun-regulation issue off the national agenda. When he was head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and later the House Democratic Caucus, then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel recruited many explicitly pro-gun candidates to run in tough House districts in 2006 and 2008 — and many of them won.

Democrats with safer seats didn't stop believing in gun control, but they didn't push it either. Liberal state legislatures were free to continue enacting gun rules, which many of them did. But after watching first Al Gore and then Kerry go down to defeat, party leaders decided that they no longer wanted to lose elections over an issue that is deeply important to conservative gun owners but that progressives regard as less pressing than health care, climate change, immigration and other matters.

Then came the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

This was not only a horrific tragedy on its own terms, with a gunman killing 20 schoolchildren and six adults. It also occurred a month after Obama was soundly re-elected despite a fairly weak economy. Cultural liberalism appeared to be ascendant, and many of Emanuel's gun-toting House members had lost in the 2010 midterms and weren't around to object.

Obama, meanwhile, no longer needed to worry about re-election. After the shooting, he asked Congress "to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of politics," and vowed to make gun regulation "a central issue."

What emerged from all this was bipartisan legislation to require universal background checks. (Michael Bloomberg, owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, founded and helps fund Everytown, a nonprofit that advocates for universal background checks and other gun-violence prevention measures.)

That legislation failed in the Senate. But it created a predictable template: Every mass shooting, especially if it was in the suburbs, would generate a surge in media coverage, followed by somber proclamations by Democratic politicians that Something Must Be Done.

It is true, of course, that the large number of guns per capita in the U.S. is related to all manner of social ills. They include a sky-high rate of gun suicides, a very high homicide rate compared to other rich countries, and the endemic problem of police shootings of civilians (which is at least in part a consequence of officers operating in an unusually gun-saturated environment).

But a background-check bill like the one proposed after Sandy Hook, which represents the outer limits of the politically possible, wouldn't directly address any of these problems. The killer in Sandy Hook, for example, used a weapon owned legally by his mother and wouldn't have been impeded by any background checks. And Colorado, the site of last week's mass shooting, already has a law requiring universal background checks.

Yes, the latest version of the assault weapons ban, as introduced in Congress, would have banned the AR-556 that was used in the Boulder shooting. But popular support for a ban is fragile. Biden was wide of the mark with his confident proclamation during the Democratic primaries that "over 90% of the American people think we have to get assault weapons off the street." A 2019 analysis found that barely more than 50% of Americans favor an assault weapons ban, even before partisan framings and counterarguments inevitably reduce its support.

Beyond the specifics of the issue, and despite the popularity of Democratic ideas such as background checks, Republicans are the more trusted party on guns.

Why? Maybe it's that voters see progressives as defining "the gun problem" in fairly expansive terms — that what those liberals really want is to see U.S. levels of gun ownership and violence brought down to those of Europe. To be clear, that sounds fine to me — but it's not fine to the electorate, and the vast majority of the people who actually care passionately about this topic are on the conservative side. So launching an argument about guns costs Democrats votes without bringing about any change in policy.

What's striking, meanwhile, is that the Sandy Hook shooting came near the end of more than two decades of a falling murder rate.

That decline ended in 2015, and gun deaths surged to their highest level in a generation last year. These are not the kind of mass shootings that make national news. Most of the increase is "ordinary" street crime that killed 14,000 people a year even at the low point. The last time gun control actually worked for Democrats as a national political issue was in the early 1990s, when the original assault weapons ban was part of a larger package — the 1994 crime bill — that also included more money for police, longer prison sentences and other "tough on crime" measures.

That style of politics has gone out of style, for a mix of good and bad reasons. But the current posture of seeing gun control as a kind of alternative to policing doesn't make much sense. Indeed, one of the big ideas touted by progressive prosecutors such as Philadelphia's Larry Krasner is to stop prosecuting gun possession cases altogether.

Both strategies — advocating for new gun laws, and declining to enforce existing ones — carry heavy political risks. Again, it may well be that the policies are worth it. But it's pretty hard to pursue them both at the same time.

Matthew Yglesias writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. A co-founder of Vox and a former columnist for Slate, he is also host of "The Weeds" podcast and is the author, most recently, of "One Billion Americans." This piece was written for Bloomberg.