DLC | Blueprint Magazine | July 12, 2001
Changing the Gun Debate

By Jonathan Cowan and Jim Kessler

Table of Contents

In an op-ed article in The New York Times, Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) explained last June why the gun issue cuts against Democrats in the South. Gun control in the region isn't just about guns, he said, but about values. "Southern voters may say they are for gun control, and they may well be for gun control, but they simply don't trust anybody who spends too much time talking about it," Miller wrote. "If Southern voters ever start to think you don't understand them -- or even worse, much worse, if they think you look down on them -- they will never vote for you."

There is a lesson in Miller's observations for Democrats across the country. The party will have a hard time recapturing the presidency and building a durable majority if it treats gun-owning Americans like sociopaths. After all, roughly 40 percent of Americans have a gun in their home -- with even higher proportions of gun ownership in Southern and mountain states. In November 2000 voters from gun-owning households made up roughly half of the electorate and two-thirds of them voted for George W. Bush for president. And as Miller pointed out, Al Gore was just the third Democratic presidential candidate since the Civil War to lose not only all of the old Confederacy but two Border States as well.

The solution isn't to clam up on guns, but rather to change the terms of the gun debate. There are gaping loopholes in our laws that make it too easy for criminals to get guns -- like the law that allows anyone to buy a gun at a gun show without a background check. It's time for Democrats -- and progressive Republicans -- to embrace a "third way" gun policy that treats gun ownership as neither an absolute right nor an absolute wrong and that calls for a balance between gun rights and gun responsibilities. To win elections, Democrats need to reason with gun owners rather than insult them. And they need to make gun owners partners in developing policies that help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and make guns safer in the home.

The party that advocates a sensible approach to guns will have a distinct advantage in future elections, especially among swing voters. But for too long, two apparently irreconcilable forces have dominated the debate and forced out the sensible center.

This is how America sees the gun debate in Washington. On the right is the National Rifle Association (NRA), which according to Fortune magazine has displaced AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) as the nation's most powerful lobby. The NRA argues that gun ownership is an absolute constitutional right that allows no restrictions on the sale, manufacture, or possession of firearms. Any limitations, it warns, will inevitably lead to total gun confiscation. It promotes widespread gun ownership as the best way to fight crime. And most significantly, it views gun ownership as a patriotic duty -- America's "first freedom" and lone bulwark against government tyranny. The public face of the gun lobby is that of Charlton Heston daring anyone to pry that flintlock from his cold dead hands.

On the left are various gun-control groups that view gun ownership as an absolute wrong. They believe the Constitution does not confer an individual right to own a gun; that owning a gun is irresponsible and unsafe; and that America is a more violent place because of access to guns. The public face of the gun-control lobby is a mother at a rally with a sticker on her cheek showing a handgun with a red slash drawn across it.

The debate could hardly be more polarizing. You're either pro-gun or anti-gun. You believe there is an individual right to own a gun or you don't. You draw the line at enforcing existing laws or you're for tough new gun-control laws. You believe crime and violence in America is all about a culture of violence or all about guns.

According to polling done for our organization, Americans for Gun Safety, the American people reject both views. Only 16 percent believe that gun ownership is an absolute right and only 9 percent believe it is an absolute wrong. Seventy percent of voters believe there is a right to own a gun and that it includes room for restrictions that keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children. Even 65 percent of gun owners and 61 percent of Americans who view the NRA favorably agree that gun rights and reasonable gun restrictions can coexist.

Moreover, nearly 70 percent of Americans believe that gun-safety laws should be "more strict." More than 60 percent think we should enforce current gun laws more vigorously and enact new ones. Seventy-eight percent "strongly favor" background checks for all gun-show sales, including 64 percent of gun owners. In short, the building blocks of a third-way gun policy are in place. This vast political middle ground is up for grabs.

To win future battles in Congress and the statehouses, gun-safety advocates in both parties should take three steps:

1. Adopt a new message: respect for gun rights coupled with an insistence on gun responsibility.

2. Back up their new rhetoric by toughening enforcement of current gun laws and passing new laws that crack down on gun crime without treating gun owners and enthusiasts as pariahs.

3. Distance themselves from traditional strategies that demonize gun owners, call for "gun control" instead of gun safety, urge a ban on guns, and imply that legal gun ownership is the root cause of gun crime.

Here's an example of sensible, centrist, bipartisan gun policy. Last fall, voters in Colorado and Oregon -- including a majority of gun owners -- overwhelmingly passed referenda requiring criminal background checks at gun shows. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) worked hard in both of these Western, pro-gun states to assure voters that closing the gun-show loophole would not put an end to the shows or take guns away from law-abiding citizens. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a conservative Republican, endorsed his state's ballot measure, as did top law enforcement officials. Americans for Gun Safety spent nearly $3 million for ads, phone banks, and direct mail urging passage of the referenda. The Washington Post called the victories "a stinging setback for the National Rifle Association."

Now here's an example of the wrong approach. Earlier this year, national and local gun-control groups rushed to endorse a proposed ban on gun shows on public property in Montgomery County, Md. It was an odd move, since Maryland already has the toughest gun-show laws on the books: Only licensed dealers can sell at the shows and background checks are required for all sales. The policy was anti-gun and didn't advance gun safety. This spring the Montgomery County Council passed the measure by one vote. You can bet that the NRA will try to use it as proof that advocates of closing the gun-show loophole really want to put gun shows out of business.

Supporters of reasonable gun laws in Washington were impressed by the success of the Colorado and Oregon initiatives. Yet they are reluctant to tackle the gun issue because they fear a backlash at the polls.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Gore-Lieberman ticket's stance on guns, which included support for licensing all gun owners, hurt it gravely in battleground states such as West Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and New Hampshire. Others argue that the perception that the Democratic Party is anti-gun kept it from regaining control of the House.

Furthermore, the NRA spent tens of millions of dollars in the last election to persuade gun-owning union households that a Gore administration would take away their guns. Although unions fought hard to persuade their members to vote their union and not their gun, the NRA's bogus scare tactic had an impact. It clearly will be a challenge for supporters of reasonable gun laws in both parties to appeal to white, male, blue-collar gun owners in 2002 and beyond.

But before Democrats make a mad dash to the video store to rent Charlton Heston's The Omega Man -- and before Republicans replace Washington's face with Heston's on the dollar bill -- they should consider these facts: Five of seven NRA-backed candidates for the Senate lost in 2000. Bush refused to accept the group's formal endorsement. And although the NRA spent millions in Michigan and Pennsylvania, it failed to deliver those battleground states to Bush. If the traditional gun-control message doesn't work, the gun lobby's message fares just as poorly.

Congressional New Democrats and moderate Republicans should begin this third-way debate by backing the pending bipartisan McCain-Lieberman bill to close the gun-show loophole and crack down on gun crimes.

The McCain-Lieberman bill would require background checks at each of the more than 4,000 gun shows held each year. Unlike previous legislation to close the gun-show loophole sponsored by former Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, it does not treat hobbyists who attend these shows like dangerous social misfits. For example, it would not impose gun-show paperwork requirements on collectors who sell guns in their homes. Nor would it require that records from gun-show sales be sent to Washington.

It also eliminates the main sticking point that scuttled attempts to pass the Lautenberg bill last year -- the time limit for completing background checks. Gun-control groups have pressed for a period of up to three business days to complete the checks. The NRA draws the line at 24 hours.

The NRA position is indefensible and irresponsible. Virtually no state has computerized its records to the point that it can screen every single application in a day and guarantee that criminals or dangerous people will not get guns. Also, the NRA argument that anything above a 24-hour limit would effectively end gun shows, which typically occur on weekends, is hollow. Pennsylvania hosts the second-most gun shows of any state and has required background checks since 1998. In fact, three of the five states that host the most shows either require background checks or the licensing of buyers.

Meanwhile, the gun-control groups' insistence on a three-day time limit is reflexively anti-gun. It's also behind the times. In an era of automated teller machines, we should work to develop instant-check systems that allow all law-abiding citizens at gun shows to buy their gun and go home, just as if they were buying a car. The McCain-Lieberman bill creates just such an incentive. Under it, a state could reduce its background-check time limit for unlicensed sellers at gun shows to 24 hours once it has a screening system in place that works within that limit.

Naturally, the far left and the far right both oppose the McCain-Lieberman bill for all the tired old reasons. But in a promising development, several of the most ardent supporters of gun control in Congress have lined up behind it. They include Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the author of the Brady bill and the assault-weapons ban, and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), whose husband was murdered and son was wounded by a gunman on a commuter train. New Democrat Rep. Dennis Moore of Kansas has also joined as a cosponsor. President Bush had not announced a position on the bill as of this writing. But a presidential spokesman recently said that Bush is committed to closing the gun-show loophole through federal law. These are all great signs for third-way gun-safety advocates.

But proving that old habits die hard, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) recently reintroduced the old Lautenberg bill. If that measure failed in the House last year in the aftermath of Columbine and with the active support of then-President Bill Clinton, why resurrect it? Cynics might say it is just to have the issue to flog over and over again.

The attempted assassination of President Reagan and the critical wounding of his press secretary Jim Brady in 1981 launched the modern gun-control movement. On the 20th anniversary of that tragedy, the national media asked a basic question: Is the movement still relevant? Their reasons for posing the question are clear. Just look at the signs: Washington's muted response to recent school shootings in California; staff layoffs at the Million Mom March; the NRA's boast that a Bush victory would give it an office in the White House. Some House Democrats have urged their leaders not to take up the gun issue. And then there was an odd pronouncement by some gun-control advocates that they were giving up the federal fight and focusing on state efforts instead.

Elected officials, including Democrats, who reflexively oppose closing the gun-show loophole and all other sensible, third-way gun-safety measures may take comfort in the conventional wisdom that the gun issue is dead. But they would do well to remember their American history: When conventional political wisdom points in one direction and public opinion points in the other, the public usually carries the day.

If gun-safety proponents start treating gun owners as partners instead of pariahs and carve out a new third-way gun policy, their best days are still ahead. If not, they will likely fade into political oblivion like the temperance movement, victims of their own ideological rigidity.

Blueprint Keyword: Extra Gun Policy

Jonathan Cowan is president and Jim Kessler is policy director of Americans for Gun Safety, a national nonpartisan advocacy group based in Washington.