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Send Lawyers, Gun Safety and Money

An article in The Washington Post today points out that the leading Democratic Presidential candidates are shying away from tough gun control, preferring instead to talk of enforcing existing laws or even leaving gun control laws to the states. None are calling for the licensing of new handgun owners, as Al Gore did in 2000..

The reason is obvious. The gun control issue is credited with driving white working class voters away from the Democratic party in key states in 2000 and Democrats want to avoid a repeat in 2004.

Of course, the role gun control, per se, played in Democratic losses in 2000 can easily be exaggerated; for example, Gore lost West Virginia in 2000 at least as much because of issues around the coal industry and environmental regulation as because of guns. Still and all, it’s hard to argue the gun issue wasn’t a contributing factor in alienating many gun-owning, working class voters from the Democrats.

So here’s the latest idea: gun safety. Instead of framing the issue as gun control, which implicitly sets up a confrontation with gun rights, many are now arguing that a better frame is “gun safety”–the idea that with gun rights come gun responsibilities to ensure their safe use and keep them out of the hands of criminals and children.

Sounds good to DR. But would the gun safety approach work? Some empirical backing for the approach is provided by a recent Penn Schoen and Berland poll on the gun issue. The poll suggests that Democrats who use a gun safety approach can advocate moderate gun regulation and be much better received than they would be if they were viewed as a typical gun control Democrat.

One need not endorse all the many findings of the poll, which, like most PSB polls, has an air of runaway advocacy a good deal of the time, to believe this general finding is credible. Democrats need all the help they can get among white working class voters in swing states and gun safety could make a solid contribution toward making Democrats more marketable to these voters.


Here in MO we had a referendum a few years back and were able to beat back a right to carry law. Unfortunately, the NRA came back into the state in 2002 and made an end run around the electoral process. They lobbied hard to get a concealed weapon law passed. Many people were outraged because President Bush granted leave to a state representative who was stationed in Cuba with the National Guard. He was able to cast the deciding vote. Unfortunately, the NRA and many of the rest of us overlooked a line in the state constitution that say, "While the people have the right to bear arms this does not justify the right to carry concealed weapons." The whole thing is caught up in the courts right now.

The trend here in Missouri reflects a difference between urban and rual voters. Concealed weapons laws are wildly (and I mean wildly) popular in the rural parts of the state. However, the majority of people live in the St Louis and Kansas City areas where the laws do not have as much traction. The result is usually a very tight election which, of course, is why Missouri is considered a swing state.

I think gun saftey is possibly a way of turning this election in favor of the Dems. Just as an aside, I am against the concealed weapons laws myself. However, I also feel these laws are being fought out at the apropriate level of discourse. I think it would be a disaster to discuss a national law of some type and the Dems would be wise to engage this debate by provide a more supportive role at the state level. I think the poll described above definately points toward the need for a change in strategy on the part of democrats.

The Gun Safety approach is probably a good idea, but I think the key to undoing the damage will be to de-nationalize this issue as a whole. The national Democratic Party and its candidates should leave it to local parties and candidates to take positions based on local circumstances.

The Constitution doesn't guarantee the right to own or carry a personal firearm (Garry Wills has a great chapter in his book "A Necessary Evil"), but it doesn't deny you the right either. Nationally we should require the enforcement of some basic laws (e.g., instant background checks, increased penalties for locally determined gun-free zones, built-in locks, proprieter's rights to ban concealed weapons on their premises) and leave the rest to the locals who know their own communities.

Here's a good article about Gov. Warner (D-VA) co-opting the issue http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/raasch/r105.htm.