Hillary Clinton is talking about guns, and everyone seems surprised. After all, doesn’t she know the issue is a sure loser for Democrats?
The truth is quite a bit more complicated than that — in fact, pushing for measures like expanded background checks is likely to help Clinton in the 2016 election. But if she’s going to promise to make headway on this issue, she needs to offer some plausible account of how as president she could make real progress where Barack Obama couldn’t.
Let’s address the matter of the gun issue’s political potency first. As is the case on so many issues, the Republican position is more popular when the questions are vague, while the Democratic position is more popular when the questions are specific. If you look at polling on guns, what you see is that the country is split pretty evenly on the broad question of whether gun laws should be more strict or less strict. But particular measures to regulate guns get much more support, especially universal background checks, which as many as nine out of ten Americans endorse.
At some point in this discussion, someone will always say: “But what about the NRA? They’re so powerful!” The NRA’s power is real in some ways and illusory in others, and it’s important to understand which is which. When it comes to lobbying, the NRA is indeed hugely powerful. It has the ability to stop any legislation on guns, often before it even gets written. But elections are an entirely different story. Almost all the congressional candidates who win the NRA’s supposedly coveted endorsement are Republican incumbents from conservative districts who win their elections by huge margins. When Republicans have a good election, as they did in 2014 and 2010, the NRA rushes to reporters to claim credit, saying the election proves that voters will punish any candidate who isn’t pro-gun. But when Democrats have a good election, as they did in 2012 and 2008, the NRA is strangely silent.
Gun ownership has been steadily declining since the 1970’s, and guns are more concentrated among voters that Democrats already won’t win and don’t need. For instance, according to the Pew Research Center, whites are twice as likely as Hispanics to own guns. If winning over Hispanic voters is the sine qua non of a Republican victory, advocacy for loosening gun laws isn’t exactly going to be part of a winning formula for the GOP. The person most likely to be a gun owner is a married white man from the South — in other words, probably a Republican.
When people argue that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t touch the gun issue, watch out for comparisons to how Bill Clinton did in the Electoral College, because America’s political geography is very different than it was two decades ago. For instance, I guarantee you that Senator Joe Manchin will at some point loudly advise that Clinton needs to tread carefully on guns if she’s to win his home state of West Virginia like her husband did twice. But the truth is that Clinton is probably not going to win West Virginia no matter what she does, and she doesn’t need to. Barack Obama’s two comfortable Electoral College victories were built on combining Democratic strongholds in the Northeast and West with the more liberal states in the Midwest and the fast-changing Southwest, where Hispanic votes are key. Clinton will almost certainly seek to assemble the same map — and it’s one where advocacy for the more popular gun restrictions will help her, not hurt her.
Still: if Clinton says it’s vital to enact universal background checks and other “common-sense” gun laws, she has to explain how she’s going to do it. Let’s not forget that in the wake of the horrific Newtown massacre, a bipartisan measure to expand background checks failed to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate, falling six votes short of the 60 it needed. If a bill that had the support of 90 percent of the public couldn’t make it past congressional Republicans just after 20 elementary school students had been murdered, how is Clinton going to convince them to vote for whatever she proposes?
But talking about gun measures in the presidential campaign could still have a practical impact, by elevating the issue and thereby making it more likely that more gun laws might be passed on the state level. And that’s where all the action has been of late: since the Newtown shooting, there have been dozens of laws passed at the state level on the subject of guns, and they tell a story of red and blue America moving farther apart.
In Red America, one state after another has passed laws to expand who can get a gun and where you can take it. Last year Georgia passed a law allowing people to take guns into churches, government buildings, and bars. “Stand your ground” laws have proliferated in Republican-run states (despite the fact that research indicates that they increase the number of homicides).
Meanwhile in Blue America, dozens of laws have been passed to rein in guns. Legislatures in states like California, Maryland, and Connecticut expanded background checks, restricted access for those with mental illness or domestic abuse convictions, and made it harder to get assault weapons. In 2014, voters in Washington state passed a ballot initiative mandating universal background checks by a wide margin.
So when we talk about the gun issue, we have to keep three things in mind. First, the kind of restrictions Clinton is proposing are hugely popular. Second, there really are two Americas when it comes to guns. And third, one of those Americas has the ability and the desire to stop any gun legislation in Congress. If Hillary Clinton has a plan to deal with that last reality, it would be interesting to hear.