Pro-Gun Backlash to Newtown Could Help Elect Republicans

Unlike Climate Change, Gun Control Can Move U.S. Voters

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published February 13, 2013, issue of February 15, 2013.
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It would be foolish to suggest that gun legislation was the decisive factor in any of those races, though it came close in Bradley’s case. Elections are decided by a multitude of major and minor factors. What we can say is that the National Rifle Association spent heavily in all three of those cases. It likes to claim credit for the results. Tellingly, gun control advocates spend a great deal of effort rebutting the NRA’s claims but don’t dismiss them outright. They usually argue that the gun lobby’s influence is just one factor among many, not as great as the lobby claims and significant only in close contests.

Paradoxically, while gun control advocates downplay the ability of the gun lobby to tip elections, they overstate its influence on legislators. In fact, they habitually misread the power of the NRA in the same way that critics of Israel misread the power of AIPAC: They overstate the lobbyist’s ability to intimidate and underestimate the lawmaker’s justified fear of grassroots anger. Particularly where guns are concerned, it’s a classic case of blue-state liberal blindness to the culture of the red-state heartland. Flyover country is gun country.

Which brings us to the 2014 Senate contest. It’s going to be a squeaker. Of 33 seats up for election, 20 are held by Democrats. Seven of those 20 are in solidly red states: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia. Two more are in swing states, Iowa and Virginia, and another two are in states with vulnerable incumbents and strong gun cultures, Colorado and Minnesota.

In all, then, 11 Democratic seats will see very close races in 2014. Democrats currently hold the Senate by a five-seat margin. Any way you look at it, Democratic control is at risk, and with it, Obama’s ability to accomplish anything meaningful in his last two years.

All this might sound like an argument against firearms legislation, but it’s not. It’s an argument for political triage, for cost-benefit analysis, for calculating the running room available to progressives over the next four years and setting priorities.

Approximately 30,000 Americans die from gunfire every year, one-third by homicide and two-thirds by suicide. With an estimated 250 to 300 million guns already in circulation around the country, how many of those lives might be saved by new gun-sale restrictions? To be sure, every life is precious. But consider: some 290,000 Americans die as a direct result of poverty each year, according to a respected study by the Columbia University school of public health. How many of those lives could be saved by a serious program of job creation, better labor laws and progressive tax reform? And how many will die, here and worldwide, as a result of our failure to address climate change?

Obama laid out an ambitious agenda for change in his February 12 State of the Union address. He offered a detailed program for jobs and economic recovery, drew a blunt line in the sand on climate change and turned his gun-control appeal into a veritable revival meeting. By the end liberals were fired up and ready for action. That doesn’t mean the path is clear, though. Republicans seemed utterly unmoved. If past is prologue, only a few of the president’s priorities will make it through Congress. Which will he choose—and at what cost to future plans?

Whoops: Last week I reported an erroneous figure of 5 million annual deaths worldwide resulting from climate change, attributed to a study by the U.N.-linked Climate Vulnerable Forum. That was based on a mistaken Reuters report. The actual number is 400,000. My apologies.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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