Two devastating tragedies struck the American northeast last fall with a deadly force that riveted the nation’s collective imagination, battered our conscience and rewrote our national agenda. One was the massive destruction of Superstorm Sandy. The other was the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Sandy and Sandy Hook. They came at a pivotal moment in our national conversation. Both have had profound implications for American politics. Sandy made landfall October 29. Within days it had driven home to millions of victims and onlookers the bankruptcy of Republican positions on climate change. Attitudes toward climate science changed overnight, creating a potential opening for a renewed legislative initiative. That, plus President Obama’s coolly presidential response at a time of crisis, helped reelect him to a second term a week later.
Sandy Hook, six weeks later on December 14, struck our emotions like a lightning bolt and swept every other topic off the table. The president let it be known that it was the worst day of his presidency, that the massacre of the children had touched him at his core like no other event since he took office. In the weeks since then, he and his allies have set out with a passion rarely seen in this White House to win new gun control legislation. The fate of the new laws is hard to predict, but one outcome seems almost inevitable: a Republican takeover of the Senate in 2014.
Too harsh? Hardly. It’s just a straightforward reading of gun law history and the current political landscape. Gun legislation, or its backlash, can and does help to tip close elections. It happened in 1994, when the Democratic-led House passed the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban and promptly fell to Republican control for the first time in 40 years. Were the gun laws the main cause of the upset? No. But they contributed.
It happened again in 1999, a month after the Columbine shooting, when Vice President Al Gore cast the deciding vote on a Senate bill requiring background checks at gun shows. The bill died in the House, but Gore went on to lose his presidential bid the next year in an agonizingly close race where every vote counted. Was his gun vote the main reason for his defeat? No. But it contributed.
It happened most famously and decisively in 1982 in California, where Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley was strongly favored to become the state’s first black governor. Unfortunately for Bradley, the ballot also included an initiative, Proposition 15, requiring registration of handguns. The proposition brought out tens of thousands of gun-owners who rarely voted, but who went to the polls to protect their weapons — and while they were at it, voted against Bradley.