Democrats Are Putting Gun Control Front and Center
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There was an amazing event in U.S. politics this week, and almost no one realized it.
It happened in Arizona, where former astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, announced he was running for Senate in 2020. He got a lot of attention, and his candidacy is viewed as a big win in the 2020 recruitment battle. He’s widely considered the best possible choice to run against the incumbent senator, Martha McSally, a Republican. Kelly immediately confirmed that he is a contender by raising more than $1 million in his first days as a candidate.
The extraordinary part of all this is that Kelly – and Giffords – have been associated with a single public policy issue since the 2011 assassination attempt that almost took her life: Fighting against guns. Sure, Kelly was an astronaut, which has been a great ticket to political success for decades, and yes, he’s the heroic husband who has fought for and with his injured wife. But he is also a gun-control activist in Arizona, a western swing state that leans Republican. That’s the kind of candidate national Democrats want in 2019.
That’s a changed world.
In the 1980s, plenty of urban Democrats advocated for gun control, but it was always a divisive issue within the party. After 1994, when Speaker Tom Foley was defeated in a Republican national landslide that featured plenty of accusations that Democrats wanted to chip away at the Second Amendment, the Democratic Party as a whole decided the issue was hopeless, and hid from it for years.
Things finally changed in this decade, after the attack on Giffords and, most notably, after the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012. The biggest change wasn’t really in public opinion, which always has favored the moderate position Democrats now advocate. It was a shift in the party, both from the top – as President Barack Obama elevated the issue to the apex of his agenda – and from the bottom, as newly organized groups such as Moms Demand Action forced the party to pay attention.
The change was validated by the Democratic victories in 2018, when some of those organized groups and their allies within the party provided much of the new energy and excitement that carried the day. The result is that inside the party it now seems normal and natural for Democrats to choose a gun-control activist as a Senate candidate in Arizona. In fact, Kelly is the mainstream Democrat, recruited by the national party; it’s still possible he’ll have a more liberal party opponent. That is, being outspoken on guns is now entirely compatible with being heavily recruited by Democrats who care most about winning.
There are essentially two ways that policy change happens in the U.S. system. Small changes are usually the result of an organized interest group finding a politician to push something it wants and for which there is no organized opposition. This happens all the time, at the national and state levels, through laws and regulations. Even when it seems there’s gridlock in Congress, small things pass either freestanding or (most likely) buried inside some other must-pass bill.
Big changes, however, mainly happen because an organized group aligns with a political party and becomes part of the majority coalition, bringing its policy positions to the agenda and, perhaps, making them a priority. Then when the party wins big (often for entirely unrelated reasons), they get the chance to implement some of those top priorities.
In fact, Democrats have passed new gun laws, especially in the year since the Parkland shooting. Democratic presidential candidates are including gun violence in their campaign trail rhetoric (that had already happened by 2016, when the Democrats gave the issue plenty of attention at their national convention).
Of course, actually getting change requires having the votes, and it’s far from certain what issues will get the votes in Congress even if there’s unified Democratic control at some point after 2020 or 2024. But moving something from off the agenda entirely into a major plank of a national party’s platform is a big deal. And there’s no better example of just how much things have changed than the Mark Kelly story.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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