Controlling guns hard to do politically


ON MOTHER'S Day, several hundred thousand people gathered in Washington for the "Million Mom March" to support gun control. Nearby, several thousand gathered to oppose gun control. Which side do you think has a better chance in the November elections?

Al Gore and most Democrats are betting that gun control is an issue whose time has come. Yet the National Rifle Association is working hard to mobilize its several million members. November promises to be a potentially historic shootout for both supporters and opponents of gun control.

Paradoxically, it just may be that both Mr. Gore and congressional allies of the NRA will gain in the process.

Mr. Gore's highlighting of gun control is based on a shift in the politics of guns in recent years. After tragedies like the shootings at Columbine High School, a widely recognized tool in voter mobilization - fear - was available to President Clinton and other gun control advocates. To the NRA's dismay, Mr. Clinton paid no price in 1996 for advocating gun control; Republican nominee Bob Dole avoided defense of gun rights as a political loser.

In presidential elections, gun control indeed may now be a winning issue. Mr. Gore stands to pick up swing votes from "soccer moms" and other independent voters in cities and suburbs in key states who respond positively to sensible-sounding efforts to protect children and curb violence.

Yet Mr. Gore's gain may be his party's loss in its other major electoral goal: retaking the House of Representatives.

The simple fact is that the NRA has power because there is a critical mass of voters out there who intensely supports gun rights. What's more, these voters are disproportionately "swing voters" - among that 10 to 15 percent of voters up for grabs in a close election. They often are classic Reagan Democrats, who fear infringement on gun ownership. They form a potent single-issue voting bloc, particularly in rural areas.

The combination of their passion for gun rights and willingness to "swing" between Democrats and Republicans traditionally has outweighed their minority status. Although big majorities tend to support gun control measures, their support has been broad rather than deep.

As NRA board member Grover Norquist said recently, "The question is intensity vs. preference. You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favor of some gun controls. But are you going to vote on your control position?"

The NRA's influence has come from its ability to move its supporters in key swing districts and states - with its message more than its money, contrary to what some campaign finance reformers say, who focus on the NRA's hefty budget.

An analysis of House Democrats who voted against gun control measures in June 1999 reveals that most represent competitive, blue-collar districts, where constituents are more likely to embrace gun rights. For these Democrats, support for gun control traditionally has caused them to lose their seats, no matter how broad the national support for gun control.

Control of the House this year will be decided in some 35 close races. The other 400 essentially are being conceded by one of the major parties because of incumbency or lopsided partisan splits that make the district safe, no matter how much money challengers spend.

The power of the NRA comes from its power to influence these relatively few close elections. There, a change in 5 percent of the vote can make all the difference, both for winning those races and control of Congress.

The Democrats are relying on a still-untested theory that some of those "million moms" and their families have become equally passionate about gun control. They also that their stance will win the votes of some independents and moderate Republicans who now favor gun control.

Given this delicate balance, both Democrats and Republicans are trying to position themselves between the swings of the polls. Unfortunately, sound policy and civil debate get caught in the crossfire.

Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park. Steven Hill is the center's western regional director in San Francisco. They are co-authors of "Reflecting All of Us"(Beacon Press, 1999).

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