Packing heat on the hill
The NRA is riding high; gun control is a political loser
Oklahoma Rep. Dan Boren's Washington office features his hunting trophies, including a stuffed wild turkey and a mounted deer head. The freshman congressman's enthusiasm for firearms might always have stood out in the Democratic Party, but Boren now finds himself among an even more endangered species: Democrats willing to discuss guns at all.
"When we as Democrats are trying to reach out and speak to voters in the center of the country, I don't think that we can support gun control," he explains. After seeing Democrats hammered at the polls for voting to regulate guns, many of his colleagues seem to agree. As a result, a number of pro-gun measures moving through Congress will most likely face little opposition, as advocates of gun control increasingly find themselves marginalized and ignored.
Not long ago, it was the gun lobby on the defensive from the passage of the Brady bill in 1993 and the 1994 ban on "assault" weapons. But some say support for gun control cost Democrats the House in 1994, and former President Clinton credited it with Al Gore's 2000 presidential defeat. "It's different than it was in the early '90s. Those were, in retrospect, the glory years," says Paul Helmke, former GOP mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., who recently took the reins of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Meanwhile, with little fanfare, National Rifle Association backers in Congress allowed the assault weapons ban to expire in 2004 and last year shielded gun makers from being sued over crimes committed using their products. Since 1999, nine states have eased restrictions on concealed weapons, and NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre says the freedom of gun owners is in "the best shape it's been in decades."
Boren is cosponsor of a bill to ban police from confiscating firearms during emergencies--a response to such seizures after Hurricane Katrina. New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler says such a bill would never have been considered five years ago. Now, he says he's sure it will become law.
Saul Cornell of Ohio State's Second Amendment Research Center, says polls consistently show broad support for gun control. What gives the gun lobby strength, he says, is that supporters see gun control as a make-or-break issue. With that passion comes money. Gun-rights groups contributed nearly 14 times as much as gun-control groups in the 2004 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Gun-control proponents should avoid efforts like the assault weapons ban that were more effective at agitating gun owners than at preventing gun violence, says Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. He recommends targeting unscrupulous dealers, and points to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who leads a coalition of over 50 mayors backing a crackdown on illegal gun sales. For backers of gun control, perhaps that's a start.
This story appears in the July 17, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.