The assault weapons ban was always doomed

March 19, 2013

Senate Democrats bowed to the politically inevitable on Tuesday, stripping a measure aimed at curbing gun violence of a provision that would have re-instated the assault weapons ban.


The assault weapons ban was never going to pass the Senate.

While Democrats insisted that the assault weapons ban would get an up or down vote on the Senate floor, even California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who had championed the legislation since the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut in late 2012, acknowledged that its chances of becoming law were somewhere between slim and none. “I very much regret it," she told Roll Call newspaper. "I tried my best, but my best, I guess, wasn’t good enough."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid admitted on the floor Tuesday that even as an amendment the assault weapons ban had no chance at passage.  "But right now her amendment, using the most optimistic numbers, has less than 40 votes. I -- that's not 60."

In truth, the assault weapons ban never had much of a chance -- no matter what Feinstein did or didn't do. The reasons why are simple, and heavily tinged with political considerations.

1. The White House needs something to pass.  Given how outspoken President Obama has been about his willingness to spend his political capital on curbing gun violence and how involved Vice President Joe Biden was in producing the proposals currently wending their way through the Senate, the White House must find a way to get some piece of their proposal passed into law.

To do that, they almost certainly need a bipartisan vote in the Senate to pressure the Republican-controlled House to act. (Worth noting: When the Assault Weapons Ban passed in 1994, Democrats had a 79-seat House majority and the bill passed by only a 216-214 count.) And, there is no chance that the White House would get that bipartisan vote (or even full support from Democrats) in the Senate if the assault weapons ban was included.

2. Senate Democrats' 2014 map: One look at the Democratic incumbents who have to stand for re-election in November 2014 and it's clear why getting a bill with an assault weapons ban in it was so politically difficult. Democrats are trying to hold onto seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia (among others) -- all states where gun rights are viewed as part and parcel of the culture and where there remains significant resistance to curtailing those rights.

"It's just the makeup of the Senate," explained Jim Jordan, a former executive director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "There are a lot more Democrats representing states where gun rights matter than Republicans in states where they don't."

It's a good reminder that all politics (at least in Senate races) is still local.  National polling makes quite clear that a majority of people support the assault weapons ban -- 57 percent support it in a Washington Post-ABC News national poll released last week --but in the individual states where the White House needs Democratic votes, the support just isn't there.

3. The bargaining chip theory: Liberals have insisted for months -- Greg Sargent, we are looking at you -- that the ultimate goal of Obama's push on guns was universal background checks on gun purchases, not the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban.

The argument, made by Greg and others, was that Democrats were always going to be willing to bargain away the assault weapons ban since they knew it simply couldn't pass.  But, by pushing as hard for it for as long as they did, Democrats can now go to moderate legislators -- not to mention the American people -- and argue that broadening background checks is now the compromise position.  Ask for the world, then bargain downwards.

Given all of the above, it's not difficult to understand why the assault weapons ban -- even after the horrors of Newtown -- never really had a chance. It's Politics, 101.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza | March 19, 2013