A Dirty Secret: The NRA And Democrats

On October 31, 2015 · 0 Comments

While three-quarters of House Republicans routinely vote the NRA way, the 50 or so NRA loyalists inside the House Democratic Caucus play an essential role in rendering substantive gun-control legislation dead on arrival. Congress might demand new safety locks and clamp down on sales at gun shows in the wake of the Littleton, Colorado, school shootings. But, thanks to these Democrats, the Democratic leadership can’t–and won’t–seriously push for more draconian measures, such as mandatory registration or new limits on gun purchases, when the House debates the topic next week. The reason: The gun issue could backfire on the party as it did in 1994, when, as Clinton admits, Democrats “lost control of the House of Representatives in all probability because of” his crusade to ban assault weapons.

The numbers speak for themselves. Forty House Democrats were awarded an “A” on the NRA’s issue scorecard in 1998, and 15 more are considered by the gun lobby to be reliable friends, according to the NRA’s head lobbyist, James Jay Baker. Many of these Democrats are as “extreme” on guns as NRA President Charlton Heston–33 of them, including Caucus Chairman Martin Frost, voted to repeal the ban on semiautomatic weapons in March 1996, for example.nramoney

Actions like these have not gone unnoticed. The NRA rewarded pro-gun Democrats with $285,000 in campaign contributions from its political action committee in 1998 and dispatched thousands of local members to assist in their reelection campaigns. “Across the South and West predominantly, there are Democrats who are extremely sensitive to and extremely supportive of their constituents’ gun rights,” notes Baker.

Most NRA-backed Democrats are Southern conservatives from rural districts, where some folks think the only problem with the Second Amendment is that it should have been the First. But gun control draws support even among some of the caucus’s otherwise liberal members. John Dingell, the legendarily liberal Michigan Democrat, “votes down the line with the Democratic leadership, except on gun control,” says Baker. Dingell, a sportsman and gun owner, represents a quiet but formidable cadre of liberals from a heavily blue-collar district where 16-point bucks and stacked gun racks are status symbols. As a show of its appreciation, the NRA sent Dingell the legal maximum of $10,000 in PAC money last election.

It was Dingell and Representative David Obey, a liberal from Wisconsin’s deer country, who, in the days before the Memorial Day congressional recess, helped convince Minority Leader Dick Gephardt not to turn the Littleton massacre into a new political crusade for the Democrats. They sided with Stupak, who rose to his feet in a private caucus meeting and warned that Democrats such as himself could lose their jobs if the predominant liberal position prevailed.

The idea of politicizing the gun issue is incredibly tempting for the Democratic leadership and irresistible for urban liberals, who still rule the caucus. They watched with envy as Senate Democrats scored their biggest political victory of the year when Vice President Al Gore ceremoniously cast the tie-breaking vote to embarrass Republicans on gun control. They also read the latest polls, which illuminate a strong desire among likely voters for stricter gun laws. It’s the ideal atmosphere to expose Republicans as radical gun zealots who care more about NRA money than the safety of school children.

But they won’t. The truth is, it’s not in Gephardt’s or his party’s self-interest–at least as far as immediate electoral prospects are concerned. Gephardt removed himself from the presidential sweepstakes to concentrate on winning the speakership in 2000, and he knows a serious debate over stricter gun laws could make his job of winning the requisite six additional seats next year impossible. Gephardt has done a masterful job concealing the deep cracks inside his caucus, not just on gun control, but on virtually every major topic the party confronts. A wide-open gun debate would expose those fissures, ripping apart the fraying caucus, so Gephardt is limiting the discussion to weak but symbolic provisions.

And, of course, a frontal assault on guns would invite the full wrath of the NRA, particularly in the most closely fought districts. Gephardt was around in 1994, when Democrats such as Jack Brooks of Texas lost their seats after voting to ban several types of semiautomatic weapons. And members like Stupak and freshman Ken Lucas of Kentucky are constant reminders of what could happen if Gephardt plays with guns too recklessly this time around. Lucas, one of only a handful of Democratic incumbents whom Republicans think they can knock off in 2000, represents an ardently conservative district packed with 11,000 registered NRA members. Gephardt is well aware that Lucas became the first Democrat to win this conservative district in three decades and that his 11,900-vote margin of victory in 1998 could easily be reversed if he’s too tough on guns. The same goes for Stupak. Fifty-nine percent of his district’s voters backed him in 1998, but, in a region where local schools literally shut down for the opening day of deer-hunting season, a misfire on gun control could end his political career prematurely. “Whether we vote for it or not, if the perception is the Democratic Party is pushing wild gun control, then [we] will lose members, plus [Gephardt] won’t pick up those six seats we need in 2000,” he warns.

In a sense, the Democratic leadership is simply paying the price for its current electoral strategy, which seeks to wrest control of the House at seemingly any cost. As part of that effort, the party has broadened its ranks, promoting conservative voices who just a few years ago were outcasts. That strategy has paid some dividends already; in 1998, it helped narrow the Republican majority to the six-seat margin that exists today. But it has also forced the party to temper its rhetoric and expectations. If the gun debate has served to highlight well-known weaknesses within the Republican Party, it has also uncovered some internal fissures in the Democratic Party–weaknesses that will only become more apparent as the party inches toward recapturing control of Capitol Hill.

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