For Democrats, Is Gun Control Worth The Effort?

In January 1994 – less than a year into President Clinton’s first term – George Stephanopoulos received a memo from Jody Powell. “If there is an area that needs ‘new thinking, ‘rethinking, ‘a different kind of Democrat,’ and all that, crime/gun control is it,” Powell wrote. “As much as I hate to say it, the NRA is effective primarily because it is largely right when it claims that most gun control laws inconvenience and threaten the law-abiding while having little or no impact on violent crime or criminals.”

Would criminals comply, Powell asked, and, if not, can we effective enforce the laws? “If the answer is ‘no’ in both cases,” he continued, “consider whether the benefits are worth making Bob Dole majority leader.”

Powell was prescient. A year later, Dole was indeed the Senate majority leader, and Newt Gingrich Speaker of the House. The new legislative leadership reduced welfare benefits, cut the capital gains tax, and impeached Bill Clinton.

Eighteen years after Powell wrote, Democrats and progressives again face the same prospect: gun control proposals that threaten to ignite a culture-war in exchange for no real gains.

Let’s take the case of “assault rifles.” In 2011, rifles of all types were involved in a whole 323 homicides, far fewer than those committed with bare hands. Assault rifles probably contributed a small fraction of this number. A dozen? Two dozen? Or take the case of “large capacity magazines.” The average number of shots fired in a gun homicide is four, and in mass slayings the killer usually carries more than one gun (at Virginia Tech, two, at Aurora, four). Add the fact that neither “ban” would affect the millions of firearms and magazines already owned, so that any hoped-for benefit is no more than speculation twenty or fifty years into the future. Or consider “the gun show loophole.” Bureau of Criminal Justice Statistics surveys of prison inmates found that 0.7% had obtained guns from a gun show. Even if gun control works, none of these measures is likely to affect the real world.

Conversely, gun owners of all political stripes have been altered to the dangers of a slippery slope. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, gun control proponents assured them that their only focus was handguns, especially small one; those were the concealable arms used in crime. In the 1990s, gun control groups discovered that “assault rifle bans” played well in the media, and “Handgun Control Inc.” changed its name to the “Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence,” and completely changed its focus. “Small, cheap guns must be outlawed” became overnight “large, heavy, costly guns must be outlawed.” In 1968, Congress decided that, since licensed dealers had to keep sales records and non-dealers did not, it would make it easy to become a licensed dealer. In the 1990s, after media pressure over “kitchen table dealers,” it enacted laws that made the great majority of small dealers give up their licenses. Today, having records is again a good idea, so the proposal is to require all sales to go through dealers. Thus also the course of gun permitting. In the 1980s, requiring gun permits was good, since it might limit carrying to the law abiding; twenty years later gun permits were bad, because concealed carry permits were being freely issued to the law-abiding.

Progressives need not be entirely satisfied with the accomplishments of the present Administration (particularly with regard to its dismal record on civil liberties) to recognize that it has many accomplishments to defend (health care reform, the end of “don’t ask and don’t tell,” etc.) and many more future measures to advance. The question becomes whether pushing gun control measures that have no benefit, for the sake of igniting a culture-war that imperils Democratic legislators in fly-over country, is a game worth the candle.

Republicans and social conservatives had their Terri Schiavo moment; Democrats and progressives now face theirs.

David T. Hardy, a member both of NRA and of ACLU, is an attorney in Tucson, Ariz. Image of gun and Constitution courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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