Is the political fight on guns over? Or is it just beginning?

April 17, 2013

In angry remarks following the defeat of a bipartisan amendment on background checks that presaged the broader collapse of an effort to pass more stringent gun control legislation, President Obama promised the fight would go on.

"I believe we're going to be able to get this one," he said. "Sooner or later we are going to get this right." He added: "I see this as just round one."

Is Obama right? Are we in the first round of a 10-round fight on guns? Or does what happened on the Senate floor Wednesday amount to a knockout for the forces pushing for more gun control measures?

It's hard to imagine a situation more emotionally impactful than what happened in Newtown, Connecticut in late 2012. The murders of 20 children and six adults was the sort of moment that felt simultaneously like the end of one chapter in our cultural history and the start of a new one.

This time would be different than Columbine. Or Virginia Tech. Or Aurora. Or Tucson. President Obama delivered a stirring eulogy for the lives lost in Newtown, a speech in which he closed by simply reading the names of each of the victims.  He was rawly emotional. So was the country.

And yet, 124 days later, the president, surrounded by families of the victims of Newtown, angrily conceded defeat on the package of legislative proposals that grew from that massacre.

The inability of what happened in Newtown to move the gun debate in Congress forward in any meaningful way -- the biggest "victory" for gun control advocates was that the bill got the requisite votes to be debated and amended on the Senate floor -- suggests that there are no external events or tragedies that will fundamentally alter the political calculus of members of Congress when it comes to gun laws.

What Obama seemed to suggest in his remarks was that the next round of the fight as he sees it is the 2014 election where those who stood in the way of his package of gun control proposals would face the wrath of voters.

"To all the people who supported this legislation....you need to let your representatives in Congress know that you are disappointed and that if they don't act this time, you will remember come election time," Obama said.

On the heels of President Obama's call to action, the outside organization run by his former top political aides -- Organizing for Action -- sent an email to their supporters echoing his promise. "We won't sit around and let Congress drag its heels while Americans are coming together to demand action," said OFA executive director Jon Carson. "We won't wait for the next Newtown."

The question is whether Obama and OFA really can change the political dynamic surrounding guns. A look at the 2014 electoral map suggests it will be a very tough lift.

First of all, of the 14 Republican seats up next November, only one sits in a state that President Obama won in 2012. And, that state's Senator -- Maine Sen. Susan Collins -- was one of four Republicans who voted for the expanded background check amendment.

Second, of the four Democrats who voted against the background check amendment, three are up for for re-election in 2014 (Max Baucus, Mark Pryor and Mark Begich).  It's hard to imagine President Obama or his political organization going after three of their own given that the battle for the Senate majority in 2014 is expected to be very, very close. (Also worth noting: There are seven Democratic-held seats -- including Baucus, Pryor and Begich -- up in 2014 in states that President Obama lost in 2012.)

What can -- and likely will -- be different going forward is that groups lobbying for more gun control laws will be far better financed and better organized, posing a genuine opposition voice to the National Rifle Association's long-held dominance on the issue of guns. (New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords have both formed pro-gun control groups.)

But, more money and better organization don't necessarily translate to urgency and intensity, which is the most critical advantage that gun rights supporters currently enjoy over those who favor more strictures on guns.   And, it's not clear whether anything that happens in the country or that President Obama (or OFA) can generate  passion on the gun control side of the argument that comes anywhere close to matching that which exists on the other side.

"To change Washington, you, the American people, are going to have to sustain some passion about this," Obama said near the conclusion of his remarks. It felt more like hope than promise.

More on this story:

Full transcript of Obama's remarks on Senate gun votes

Obama: 'A pretty shameful day for Washington'

What the failure of the background check deal means

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza · April 17, 2013