December 17, 2012

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In the wake of the Newtown horror, it looks like we really may see some action towards meaningful gun law reform. In his speech yesterday, President Obama pledged to “use whatever power this office holds” to spur “an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.” He added that “we can’t accept events like this as routine,” and asked: “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

That is a direct shot at the philosophical underpinning of the “gun rights” argument, and all but guarantees some kind of push for a policy response to the problem of mass gun violence. Meanwhile, Senator Dianne Feinstein announced yesterday that she’ll reintroduce the assault weapons ban on the first day of the new Congress.

 So here’s one thing to watch: How will red state Democrats react? My colleague Aaron Blake predicts they will balk:

While it will be hard for any gun control bill to get GOP votes, it will also be very difficult to get votes from Senate Democrats who face reelection in red states in 2014. And they are legion. Sens. Max Baucus, Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Tim Johnson and Kay Hagan are all up in two years and will be very tough votes to get. And that doesn’t include Democratic senators in pro-gun swing states like Mark Udall in Colorado and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire.

The prospect of political cowardice among Dems undermining the push for gun law reform at this critical juncture is dispiriting indeed. That said, it’s potentially significant that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin — a hunter and staunch “gun rights” Dem — said this morning that the time has come to act. Crucially, he suggested that assault weapons have little in common with hunting: “I’ve never had more than three shells in a clip.”

Indeed, I’m cautiously hopeful that this time around, Democrats will overcome their typical skittishness on guns. As Nate Cohn has argued, the politics of this issue have changed: Democrats are less reliant on conservative, rural, gun-owning voters than at any time in the history of the party, due to Dem gains among socially moderate suburbanites, and ongoing demographic shifts that continue to boost the vote share among minorities and young voters  — all voter groups who may not see “gun rights” as a potent issue.

More broadly, I really wonder whether these types of cultural issues are losing their peril for Democrats. Remember, many predicted that if Obama embraced gay marriage, he risked a backlash among culturally conservative voters that could put his reelection at risk. That obviously didn’t happen — any backlash that occurred probably took place among voters he could never win over, anyway, and was more than compensated for by broader demographic shifts. If Dems have historically had to tread carefully around the conservative embrace of “God, guns, and gays,” as the famous formulation has it, perhaps two of the big “G” cultural issues are on their way toward being neutralized (God willing, of course).

That’s made more likely by the horrific nature of this particular shooting, which is the sort of event that has the emotional power to force genuine cultural shifts. If a shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children isn’t enough to induce Democrats to overcome their paralysis in the face of the gun lobby, nothing ever will.

Let me emphasize that I’m only cautiously optimistic that things will be different this time. The prospect of skittishness setting in among red state Democrats is a dynamic that needs to be watched carefully.

* Obama unhappy with previous responses to mass shootings: Here’s another reason for that cautious optimism: E.J. Dionne reports that people inside the Obama administration were unhappy with the “passivity” of their response to other mass shootings. Dionne’s wish list for meaningful reform:

What, minimally, might “meaningful action” look like? We should begin with: bans on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons; requiring background checks for all gun purchases; stricter laws to make sure that gun owners follow safety procedures; new steps to make it easier to trace guns used in crimes; and vastly ramped-up data collection and research on what works to prevent gun violence, both of which are regularly blocked by the gun lobby.

* Is Medicare age hike off the table? The latest in the fiscal cliff talks: Boehner is offering tax hikes on income of $1 million and up, in exchange for $600 billion in savings from health care programs and $600 billion in other spending cuts (which still remain unspecified). This nugget from the New York Times’ account is key:

officials said that Mr. Boehner was willing to drop discussions of an immediate increase in the eligibility age for Medicare, to 67 from 65, recognizing the fierce opposition to that change among Democrats.

I have not been able to confirm this with either side, but if it’s true, it’s very significant.

* Is Boehner prepared to cave on debt ceiling? Some reports today claim Boehner’s latest offer includes a hike in the debt ceiling without a fuss. But Politico reports that Boehner’s office is pushing back:

Boehner aides pushed back on the media reports on the debt-limit delay, calling them “highly misleading.” “As we’ve always said, any debt limit increase would require cuts and reforms of a greater amount,” said Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman.

 
Keep in mind, though, that Boehner needs to be projecting a willingness to go to the mat on the debt ceiling in order to keep the Tea Partyers happy, particularly since they’ll soon have to swallow very bitter concessions on taxes.

 * “Gun rights” advocates feel under attack: So sad, really. The advocates for “gun rights” feel like they are now under attack in the wake of the Newtown shooting. They are the victims here, apparently. Also note this, from one of them, justifying ownership of a Bushmaster:

“I could ask you why should anyone want a Ferrari?” Van Cleave said Sunday. “[Bushmasters] are absolutely a blast to shoot with. They’re fast. They’re accurate.”

Yes, but there’s a key difference between Bushmasters and Ferraris. A free Plum Line T-shirt to the first 10 people who spot it.

* “Right to carry” laws don’t necessarily reduce crime: GOP Rep. Louis Gomert opined yesterday that if the Newtown principal had had an assault rifle stowed away in her office, the tragedy might have been averted — and asserted that more guns, not fewer, are the answer. But Glenn Kessler does a nice job taking apart the supposed research showing a connection between  “right to carry” laws and crime rates.

* Pro-gun Senators go quiet: NBC and CBS both invited numerous pro-gun Senators to appear on their shows yesterday to defend the “gun rights” point of view in the wake of the shooting. Not a single one accepted the offer, which is remarkable, given that Senators aren’t exactly given to avoiding a chance to preen on the Sunday shows. Profiles in courage!

* And we’re still stuck in the wrong fiscal conversation: As Paul Krugman keeps reminding us, getting the economy going again, rather than immediate deficit reduction, should be the main priority of our lawmakers:

America does have a long-run budget problem, thanks to our aging population and the rising cost of health care. However, the current deficit has nothing to do with that problem, and says nothing at all about the sustainability of our social insurance programs. Instead, it mainly reflects the depressed state of the economy — a depression that would be made even worse by attempts to shrink the deficit rapidly.

What else?

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.