President Bill Clinton, with former Pennsylvania senator Harris Wofford at the White House in May 1993. (Joe Marquette/Clinton Bamberger Papers, National Equal Justice Library, Georgetown Law Library)

Ask Democratic leaders why they have been reluctant until recently to make gun control a core issue, and the conversation eventually leads to 1994. 

That year, Democrats lost control of the House for the first time since the early 1950s, just eight weeks after ­President Bill Clinton signed a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons. That ban came nearly a year after Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, better known as the Brady Bill, which imposed background checks on gun purchasers. The National Rifle Association claimed credit for the Democratic wipeout, and its allies — still, 24 years later — invoke “#1994” as a warning to anyone who thinks about advancing gun-control measures.

But as a Clinton administration official who helped lead our efforts to win passage of these two measures a generation ago, I have always been skeptical of the idea that the Democrats’ support for popular and common-sense gun restrictions were the critical element of the 1994 election losses. More important, I am absolutely confident that, in 2018, the politicians who should fear the NRA are not Democrats who confront it, but suburban Republicans headed for defeat because of their alliance with it.

Let’s start by debunking the NRA’s “monster under the bed” notion that they were the cause of the Democratic Party’s devastation in 1994. In fact, there were many causes: an ailing economy, Democrats’ votes for an unpopular tax increase, anti-immigrant sentiment in California and Arizona, and the failure of the Clinton health-care plan. These all played a larger role in the outcome than guns did. Indeed, of the 20 House Democrats outside of coastal or urban districts who lost that year, most voted against the assault-weapons ban. While only 31 percent of House Democrats overall voted against the ban, among rural Democrats who lost, 60 percent voted against it — making the correlation between members’ views on gun control and their fate at the polls dubious at best. Over in the Senate, where two Democratic incumbents were defeated, one favored the assault-weapons ban, and one opposed it.

Despite being ravaged in 1994, Democrats began chipping away two years later at the Republican House majority, and the president who signed these gun-control measures into law — Clinton — became the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win two presidential elections. Two years after that, two of three incumbents who lost in the Senate were strongly backed by the NRA. Thus, even as the assault-weapons ban and Brady Bill were in effect, the NRA — not its opponents — was losing at the ballot box.

So, yes, Democrats took on the NRA in 1994 and lost 54 House seats. But Democrats were criticized for not taking on the NRA in 2010 — when they lost 63 House seats. More recently, when President Barack Obama battled the NRA after the Sandy Hook massacre — with a 2013 proposal to expand background checks for gun purchases — the 2014 election saw an almost even divide between defeated Democratic senators who voted with the NRA (two) and those who voted against it (three)

The increasing polarization of our politics further limits the NRA’s impact: Voters aligned with the NRA are going to vote Republican anyway; likely Democratic voters have little overlap with the gun lobby. In the last two marquee political contests in this country, both in the heart of NRA country, Doug Jones won Alabama’s Senate seat and Ralph Northam was elected governor of Virginia — home of the NRA’s headquarters — while campaigning for gun control and against the NRA directly.

The NRA has exacerbated this dynamic by turning itself into an affiliate of the GOP. The NRA backed 115 Democratic candidates for Congress in 1992, 65 in 2010 — but only four in 2016. The NRA’s video messages are no longer about gun rights ; they instead rail against the Oscars, the media, university elites — essentially providing air cover for President Trump’s Twitter ravings. The group gave its Courage Under Fire Award to the chairman of the FCC for repealing net neutrality  — a GOP cause, not a concern of gun owners. All this may be an effort to cement an alliance with a Republican president who once supported an ­assault-weapons ban. The NRA may still be a colossus within the GOP, but it increasingly offers little common ground with even the most conservative Democrats, traditionally a key to the GOP’s legislative victories.

Indeed, as the astute political observer Ronald Brownstein recently argued, it is not Democrats who should fear the NRA, but instead Republicans, for how the gun-rights group could bring an abrupt end to their careers. Pro-NRA Republicans in suburban congressional districts are most at risk of losing this fall. And grass-roots Democrats are far more uni­ted in supporting new gun-control measures than Republicans are in opposing them. 

As far as Democrats are concerned, the NRA is no longer the 800-pound gorilla of American politics. Indeed, it may prove to be a thousand-pound anvil around Republicans’ necks in November.