The 2020 election may not have turned out the way gun owners had hoped. The good news is, it didn’t quite turn out the way the anti-gun radicals had hoped, either. Moreover, the Democrats’ lackluster results have some of the party faithful questioning their devotion to gun control altogether.
The week before the election, The Cook Political Report declared that House Democrats were “poised to expand [their] majority by 10 to 15 seats.” Their prediction for the Senate was similar, calling Democrats “the clear favorites to take back the Senate.” On November 1, polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight gave Democrats a 75 percent chance of gaining control of the Senate and reported that the most- likely scenario was that Democrats would control the chamber by a margin of 52-48. Nate Silver’s outfit also predicted the Democrats to expand their House majority by six seats. On October 16, Inside Elections carried the headline “Democrats Poised for a Sweep” over a story that declared “in the House, Democrats will retain and expand their majority” and peddled a scenario where Democrats gained “10 or 11” Senate seats.
The Democrats managed to underperform all expectations. Rather than acquiring new seats in the House, the Democrats had lost at least 10 seats as of press time. Democrats also failed to secure a Senate majority. As of press time, the Republicans had secured 50 Senate seats to the Democratic caucus’s 48. Pending the outcome of two runoff elections in Georgia, the best the Democrats could hope for is a 50-50 Senate. Summing up the party’s performance in state races, a November 28 New York Times headline blared: “How Democrats Suffered Crushing Down-Ballot Losses Across America.”
In the aftermath of the Democrats’ disappointing election results, the party devolved to finger-pointing and recrimination. Intemperate messaging, rather than foolhardy policy positions, became the primary scapegoat.
In perhaps the most high-profile incident of Democrat post-election frustration, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) criticized House leadership during a November 5 conference call. After barely surviving a stiff challenge from NRA-endorsed Virginia State Delegate Nick Freitas (R), Spanberger was livid with her caucus. The freshman representative stated, “I think that we need to be pretty clear about the fact that Tuesday, from a congressional standpoint, it was a failure.” Spanberger went on to criticize Democrats’ “defund the police” and “socialist” messaging. In concluding, the congresswoman noted, “If we are classifying [the election] as a success from a congressional standpoint, we are going to get f****** torn apart in 2022.”
While much of the attention has gone to the Democrats’ imprudent messaging on law enforcement and socialism, a small handful of adept observers have taken notice of another losing issue for Democrats—gun control.
The day following the election, former Democratic U.S. Senator from Missouri, Claire McCaskill, went on MSNBC to offer her take on her party’s missteps. McCaskill cited guns as an issue where Democrats had alienated voters, adding, “as we circled those issues we left voters behind and Republicans dove in with a vengeance… we also need to stop acting like we’re smarter than everyone else, because we’re not.”
However, no one was more pointed or astute in their criticism of the Democratic Party’s embrace of gun control than Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias. In a piece titled, “National Democrats’ misguided re-embrace of gun control” posted to his website Slow Boring, the former Center for American Progress (CAP) wonk laid out the case that national Democrats should abandon their fanatical support for gun control. As Yglesias put it, “The juice here just isn’t worth the squeeze.”
Recalling his time at CAP in the mid-2000s, Yglesias noted, “the feeling was that post-2004 Democrats had decided that [gun control] was not an issue worth losing votes over.” According to the former CAP analyst, this was a calculated move based on multiple factors.
First, Yglesias noted, “Even gun regulation measures that poll well did not seem to really motivate voters while opposition to gun regulations was clearly motivating” and that “progressives themselves did not think this was a particularly important issue compared” to a host of others.
This is sometimes referred to as the “enthusiasm” or “intensity” gap between gun-rights supporters and gun-control backers. Political observers have often credited this gap as the determinant factor in 2013’s gun owner victory over President Barack Obama’s effort to criminalize the private transfer of firearms.
Even professional gun-control advocates understand this reality. In 2012, gun-control advocates commissioned a group of DC consulting firms to craft a gun-control messaging playbook. The final document, Preventing Gun Violence Through Effective Messaging, conceded, “There is an intensity gap that has built up over years. In the general public, those who view themselves as supporters of gun rights are more deeply committed to and emotionally invested in their position than those supporting stronger gun violence prevention measures.”
Second, Yglesias pointed out that “The kinds of gun control measures that poll well are not the kind of thing that would significantly move the needle in terms of US gun deaths.” Taking a swipe at bans on commonly-owned semi-automatic firearms, the writer noted, “homicides are mostly committed by normal, inexpensive easily concealed handguns, not by scary assault weapons.” In a challenge to so-called “universal” background check laws, the left-wing activist cited a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice survey of prison inmates that showed they mostly obtained their firearms from the black market or from family or friends.
Yglesias made clear that it’s not that he believes gun control can’t work. Rather, the progressive activist believes that the severe confiscatory gun control necessary to impact violence perpetrated with firearms is not politically palatable.
Yglesias’s contention is similar to that expressed in a 2013 National Institute of Justice memo that examined the various gun controls proposed in the wake of the high-profile shooting in Newtown, Conn. Firearm turn-ins, bans on commonly-owned semi-automatic firearms, magazine capacity restrictions, and “universal” background checks were all determined to be ineffective absent further extreme gun-control measures, such as confiscation and firearms registration.
To bolster his argument that national Democrats should abandon gun control, Yglesias pointed to how the party’s conscious efforts to shy away from gun control from 2004-2012 coincided with a period of electoral success. Recalling that time period, he noted, “That strategy of agenda-suppression largely worked across the 2006 and 2008 cycles. It largely delivered its intended electoral benefits. Democrats ran vocally pro-gun nominees in jurisdictions where that seemed appropriate, and national leaders basically didn’t talk about guns so it was not a salient part of the party brand.”
A 2005 Boston Globe item titled, “Democrats Recast their Gun Control Image,” chronicled how both Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rahm Emanuel urged candidates to moderate to reflect their districts on the gun control. By January 2009, the Democrats enjoyed a 58-seat majority in the U.S. Senate and controlled the U.S. House by a margin of 255-178.
Yglesias’s piece isn’t perfect. There is a strong case to be made that the Democrats’ move away from gun control began four years earlier than Yglesias contends, following the 2000 presidential election. In 2002, the Washington Post reported on a Democratic Senate caucus confab “at which several senators talked about how the party’s position on gun control was killing Democrats, especially in rural states, and urged a retreat.” Notably, the more moderate senators were chastised for their sensible suggestion by one Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Moreover, there was a shift evident in the 2004 Democratic Party Platform. The document stated, “We will protect Americans’ Second Amendment right to own firearms…” This recognition that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms continued in the 2008 and 2012 platforms. The position was abandoned for the 2016 and 2020 platforms.
Yglesias also neglected to explore an important piece of the Democratic gun control puzzle—the Democratic donor class’s affinity for the issue.
In recent years, wealthy Democratic donors have poured money into gun-control groups and causes, granting gun control proponents an outsized influence in the Democratic coalition. That these well-heeled elites would prefer Democrats to spend their finite time and political capital on gun control rather than on raising the minimum wage, a more robust social safety net, an increase in the capital gains tax, or other progressive priorities that might affect their bottom line should come as no surprise to anyone.
The most conspicuous example of this mega-donor influence has been billionaire media tycoon and gun-control financier Michael Bloomberg’s political spending. However, the 2020 election provided strong evidence that there are limits to the electoral efficacy of this type of largesse.
Bloomberg’s failed 104-day campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination cost more than $1 billion dollars. For all of that cash, the only jurisdiction the anti-gun magnate carried was American Samoa. During the general election, Bloomberg vowed to spend $100 million to flip Florida for Joe Biden. Donald Trump improved on his 2016 margin of victory in the Sunshine State by two points. The former New York City mayor also spent millions in Ohio and Texas to no avail. Moreover, as if to admit that anti-gun spending wouldn’t work in 2020, Bloomberg’s gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety targeted swing district candidates with mailers that didn’t even mention guns or gun control.
NRA has been and continues to be a nonpartisan organization that endorses politicians across the political spectrum who work to defend the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Cynics should consider that as recently as the 2010 election, NRA endorsed 61 Democratic House candidates and two Democratic Senate candidates.
Time will tell if Democrats will heed the wisdom of the pragmatists in their party and once again work to remove their gun-control albatross. If they do not, gun owners will continue to hold them accountable.