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.
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 email@example.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).