Smoking Gun? Democrats Wonder Whether One Side Issue Gave Decisive Ammo to the GOP

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

February 13, 2001

Did guns kill the Democrats in the election of 2000? And, if so, does that mean the party should go soft on gun control in the future?

Many Democrats think so. They see gun control as having hurt Al Gore and the party’s congressional candidates in rural areas, especially in the South and in the Rockies.

But blaming gun control for what went wrong in 2000 is too convenient. It permits Democrats to ignore other problems. And it misses how much support for gun control has helped the Democratic candidates in the suburbs as well as the big cities, especially in the Northeast, Middle West and on the West Coast. Supporters of gun control need new strategies, some of which will be unveiled this week. But there’s no call to sell out on what ought to be an issue of principle.

Let’s go to the numbers. The Democrats won two (and, arguably, three) presidential elections in part because they are much stronger in the nation’s suburbs than they used to be. The party’s new suburban strength owes to changing demographics and to middle class issues other than guns—the environment, abortion and the good economy. But gun control is an important part of a package that has appealed to suburban moderates.

In Montgomery County in the Philadelphia suburbs, the current president’s father overwhelmed Michael Dukakis in 1988 by a margin of more than 60,000 votes. But Al Gore defeated George W. Bush in Montgomery County last year by more than 30,000 votes.

In Michigan’s suburban Oakland County, the elder Bush defeated Dukakis by nearly 110,000 votes. This time, Gore beat the younger Bush by 7,000 votes. And in Chicago’s northern suburbs in Lake County, the Republican margin dropped from 50,000 in 1988 to 5,000 last year.

Robert Borosage, a liberal Democrat who works with gun-control groups, sees these numbers as pointing to new coalitions between urban and suburban voters who favor stronger gun measures than most politicians have been willing to propose.

Nor did the gun-control issue harm Democrats in last year’s Senate races. In fact, says Steve Cobble, a longtime Democratic activist who organized gun-control campaigns last year, the National Rifle Association was on the losing side in most of the key Senate races. Republicans who lost included John Ashcroft of Missouri, Rod Grams of Minnesota, Spencer Abraham of Michigan and Slade Gorton of Washington.

The House, Cobble concedes, is more of a mixed picture. But he notes that Democrats who favored gun control did well on both coasts, and that some moderate Republicans won only by favoring gun control. Freshman Republicans such as Rep. Mark Kirk from outside Chicago know where the suburban winds are blowing on this issue.

It’s true that Democrats have a problem in rural areas, and that guns were a drag on Gore and the Democrats in such states as West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. But the rural defections from the Democrats owed not just to guns, but to cultural issues generally and to fallout from the Clinton scandals. Shifting the party’s posture on gun control offers no magic bullet.

But gun-control advocates do need to make inroads among gun owners who might be sympathetic to some regulations, but see gun-control advocates as culturally hostile to rural values. This week, Americans for Gun Safety, a new group financed largely by’s Andy McKelvey, will begin running ads that defend the right to own guns, but also argue that law-abiding gun owners need not fear sensible restrictions. The group is working with members of Congress, among them Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on closing the loophole on gun shows. “In America, we have the right to own a gun,” the new ad says. “But with rights come responsibilities, like keeping guns out of the hands of criminals.”

The theory, says Jennifer Palmieri, the group’s director of federal affairs, is that “you have to stop demonizing gun owners and target your message to white males, and even to gun owners themselves.” Gun-safety advocates draw solace from the overwhelming victories last year in Colorado and Oregon of ballot measures closing the gun show loophole.

Learning from the 2000 elections will do the cause of gun safety no harm. But to give up on the cause altogether would be to learn the wrong lessons on matters of politics no less than principle.