Last week, Vice President Joe Biden stood before House Democrats at their annual retreat in Landsowne, Virginia and promised them that he would travel with President Obama to districts with high rates of firearm ownership to make the case for sensible gun laws. "You can go into areas where we're told you can't go and politically survive," he told them. "I'm telling you times have changed."
The next day, Democratic Leaders in the House of Representatives announced a comprehensive set of policy principles aimed at reducing gun violence in America. These principles were developed by the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force and its chairman, Congressman Mike Thompson (D-CA-5th). They include universal background checks on all gun sales, tough measures to curb illegal gun trafficking, and a renewal of the federal ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
The key now will be making sure the entire House Democratic Caucus is on board with these principles. And if past experience is a teacher, that's going to take some work. As Tim Dickinson recently pointed out in a revealing article in Rolling Stone, the Democrats largely abandoned the gun issue in the 2006 election cycle, recruiting a new generation of Blue Dog Democratic candidates who openly embrace the National Rifle Association (NRA). As one top Democrat told Dickinson, "[The party] didn't care about what your position was on guns."
That's going to have to change if we're going to prevent future tragedies like Newtown and the daily, gruesome toll of gun violence in this country. Let's not forget, it was just seven months ago that 17 House Democrats voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt of Congress in a partisan vote engineered by the NRA. These Democrats were apparently not satisfied with the thousands of documents that Holder released to Congress regarding the "Fast and Furious" operation conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) on the southwest border (Holder was later exonerated of all wrong-doing in the operation by a Department of Justice Inspector General report). Of the 17, those who remain in the House after the last election cycle are Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI-13th), Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT-4th), Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC-7th), Rep. John Barrow (D-GA-12th), Rep. Bill Owens (D-NY-21st), Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN-7th), Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV-3rd), and Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN-1st).
Last month, my organization, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, released a hard-hitting video highlighting the pro-gun record of one of these Democrats, John Barrow of Georgia. The video was named one of "The Hippest, Coolest Gun Control Ads of the Last 15 Years" by Buzzfeed. Fox News saw it quite differently, however, and stirred up quite a bit of controversy with negative coverage (our staff received scores of emails from angry and exceptionally well-armed individuals after Fox aired the video). Fact-checkers like Eugene Kiely and Glenn Kessler also took exception to our selective editing of a Barrow campaign ad (in which he brandishes firearms and brags about his NRA endorsement), but curiously avoided examining the one fact that actually mattered: Namely, that John Barrow has consistently voted according to the dictates of the National Rifle Association's leadership, and against the interests of his constituents.
Like other Democrats who voted to hold Holder in contempt, Congressman Barrow has a record on the gun issue that is deplorable. His votes have weakened public safety not only in his district, but nationwide. Since entering the House of Representatives, Barrow has co-sponsored NRA-drafted legislation to: a) Grant the gun industry unprecedented legal immunity from civil lawsuits ("Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act"); b) Roll back longstanding provisions safeguarding against the illegal trafficking of firearms ("Firearms Interstate Commerce Reform Act"), and; c) Force states to recognize concealed handgun permits from other states even if those individuals would not be cleared to carry guns in public under their own democratically-enacted laws ("National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act"). Following Barrow's vote to hold Holder in contempt, Democratic Party of Georgia State Delegation Chair (and civil rights icon) Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery said of him, "You are a Republican hiding in Democrat's clothing. He doesn't count in the Democratic column. He might as well go on and be a Republican."
Equally disturbing is the way Barrow has doubled down on his support of the NRA in the wake of the tragedy at Newtown, indicating that he would not support any new measures to prevent individuals like Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Wade Michael Page and Adam Lanza from gaining easy access to firearms. When asked by a reporter in Georgia "Why have your views [on guns] not changed?" Barrow responded, "Because the Constitution hasn't changed. I think there's a tendency on both parts of the side to react to an incident of this sort, and to overreact." He then preemptively declared in a town hall meeting, "No new [gun] laws will have a big chance of passing in the House." Finally, Barrow derided President Obama's package of gun policy reform proposals by stating, "We need to find practical solutions to gun violence that are consistent with the Second Amendment, rather than having another political debate in Washington that divides Americans."
Leaders in the House Democratic Caucus like Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Mike Thompson should take note of such statements. If they truly believe that Americans "deserve to be free from the threat of gun violence in their homes, their schools, and their neighborhoods," then a new message will have to be sent to John Barrow and the other "Contempt" Democrats in the House. And that message will have to be, "The party does care about what your position is on guns" -- to the point that it will affect important future decisions like committee assignments and fundraising assistance.
When that happens -- and when moderate Republicans are buoyed by seeing Democrats in rural and conservative districts taking tough, principled votes on the gun issue -- life-saving reforms will become reality, not aspiration.