Note to Politicians: Diss the Deadly Myth

Weak gun laws lead to tragedies, but common sense gun laws save lives. The latest example: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed into law a bill that will help keep guns away from the dangerously mentally ill. The bill requires mental health facilities to notify the state Department of Justice by electronic means when patients are admitted.

How did this bill come about? Assembly member Jim Beall introduced it after the mentally ill son of one of his constituents bought a gun shortly after being released from a mental health facility. The constituent was concerned for the safety of his son, as well as for the safety of others who might have come into contact with his gun-toting son.

Makes sense, doesn't it?

Yet, it's laws like this new one in California that too many of our elected officials are reluctant to sponsor and help pass. Dozens of politicians have swallowed whole the myth that sensible gun laws equal bad politics and short political careers.

With the 2010 election contests in high gear, now is a good time to set the record straight.

This myth that promoting and passing strict gun laws can be political suicide has its roots in the 1994 elections, when Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress. Bill Clinton was president and earlier in his term he supported and signed the laws restricting the sale of assault weapons and the Brady bill requiring that federally licensed dealers conduct background checks. In his 2004 autobiography he wrote, "The NRA... could rightly claim to have made Gingrich the House speaker."

But as Clinton also pointed out, there were a lot of other reasons for the game-changing defeats. The party in control almost always loses seats in off-year elections. It was to be no different in 1994.

Voters that year were upset with Democrats over bounced-check scandals, Speaker Jim Wright's book deal, and an air of arrogance among members of the House, who had not seen a change in party control in 40 years. Many were also upset by Clinton's health-care initiative, NAFTA, and tax increases. Seizing the window of opportunity, Republicans issued their PR-savvy "Contract with America," which set in motion a national campaign to install more Republicans in Congress, with less focus on candidate-by-candidate races.

The "Contract" also, interestingly, did not mention guns. Neither does this year's "Pledge to America." Stop for a few minutes and think about that.

While many races this year are toss-ups, it seems clear that on the Democratic side, the most vulnerable candidates are those who have done the NRA's bidding. Notable among them are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who couldn't get the NRA endorsement this election after all he's done for the gun lobby in recent years; Representative Brad Ellsworth in Indiana, who is running for the U.S. Senate and likely to lose badly to former Senator Dan Coats, despite an NRA endorsement and large NRA expenditures attacking Coats; and Debbie Halvorson in Illinois, who has done everything asked of her by the NRA in her first term.

Meanwhile, the 113 House co-sponsors of the Gun Show Loophole Closing Act, which the Brady Campaign has made a legislative priority, are likely to do significantly better in November than the 53 Democrats who have taken NRA money this cycle.

Politicians in both major parties need to understand that gun violence will not go away or diminish significantly until political leaders take strong, common-sense steps consistent with what Justice Scalia has described as "presumptively lawful."

In poll after poll, Americans support strong, specific gun violence prevention initiatives by strong margins. As one of our victim advocates so eloquently put it, they're simply waiting for elected officials to catch up and step up.

The majority of Americans do not support the agenda of the NRA's bosses of guns anywhere, any time, for anyone.

With the help of our supporters who repeatedly write, make phone calls, and speak out against the NRA's most outrageous congressional proposals, we helped stop the gutting of D.C.'s gun laws, which are some of the strongest in the nation; helped defeat the so-called Thune Amendment, which would have made it legal to carry loaded, concealed guns almost anywhere in the United States.

At the same time, we helped thwart the campaigns by the NRA's bosses to keep Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan from being confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and last month got the House to take out a measure that would restore gun rights to mentally ill and comatose veterans.

As mighty as the NRA is perceived to be by overly cautious politicians and their advisers, thanks to the courage of leaders, scores of victims, and supporters of sensible gun laws, the gun lobby doesn't make much of a difference on who wins and loses elections.

For the greater safety and security of all Americans, candidates for both parties running for election this year would be wise to stop believing what the New York Times rightly called "a deadly myth."

Paul Helmke is president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Follow the Brady Campaign on Facebook and Twitter.