For the first time since 2000, the Presidential election promises to be pivotal for the politics of gun control. Both for supporters of stronger gun laws, and for "gun rights" partisans, the stakes could not be higher.
It was not long ago that the political death of gun control was accepted as an incontestible truth by pundits of every ideological stripe. For the Democratic Party, although much was made of the alleged impact of the gun issue on the Gingrich takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994, the real turning point was the 2000 Presidential election. Despite the highly material fact that Al Gore actually won more popular votes than the National Rifle Association-endorsed George W. Bush, the Republican's ascent to the Presidency gave rise to a consensus among Democratic leaders and analysts that the policy benefits of gun control were simply not worth the political risk. When in 2005 the party chose Howard Dean, recipient of the NRA's support in Vermont, as chair of the Democratic National Committee, an insider Capitol Hill publication called it "the last nail in gun control" and "a crippling blow to the gun-control movement." In a 2006 book, Democratic advisors Paul Begala and James Carville argued that the Party should "defuse" the gun issue by agreeing with the NRA that we should simply enforce existing laws instead of passing new ones.
The conventional wisdom was so strong that, after 2000, gun control was not viewed as a winning issue regardless of which party won the Presidential sweepstakes. President Bush's reelection in 2004 was viewed, of course, as an NRA victory, but even President Obama's wins in 2008 and 2012 were not seen as victories for gun control because Obama was viewed as largely avoiding the issue, particularly in 2012. Obama's first term was singularly dispiriting for gun control forces, as a Democratic Congress passed legislation, signed by Obama, that included amendments to permit loaded guns in national parks (reversing a no-guns policy imposed by President Ronald Reagan, of all people) and unloaded guns in baggage areas on Amtrak trains. Time and again, mass shootings would prompt eloquent, consoling remarks from the President, but no statements supporting stronger gun laws.
For President Obama and the Democratic Party, it all changed with the massacre of first graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, 2012. The president later said it was the saddest day of his presidency. For the first time, he offered more than just healing words: "We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics." His new, ambitious gun control agenda -- which included extending Brady Bill background checks to all gun sales and banning assault weapons -- died in Congress, as Congressional Republicans continued to march in lockstep with the NRA. But, since Sandy Hook, the transformation of the Democratic Party on the gun issue has become complete. The recent historic sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives, led by civil right icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), symbolically established gun control as a matter of principle, not politics, for Democrats, much like the civil rights struggle itself.
The gun violence issue was center stage at the Democratic National Convention, which featured the stories of multiple families victimized by gunfire, with a heart-rending and utterly inspiring, appearance by wounded former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. After pummeling Sen. Bernie Sanders during the primaries for his Congressional votes against the Brady Bill and in favor of special legal protection for the gun industry, Hillary Clinton, in her convention acceptance speech, recognized that "for decades, people have said this issue was too hard to solve and the politics too hot to touch." She responded: "But I ask you, how can we just stand by and do nothing?" Hillary Clinton's commitment to stronger gun laws appears deep and genuine. Throughout the primary campaign, she pledged to keep "taking on the NRA."
In contrast, the NRA has endorsed Donald Trump, who roused the NRA Convention with his statement that "We're getting rid of gun-free zones," reflecting his conviction that we need to ensure that teachers are armed to shoot back when a school shooting begins. For the first time, a top NRA official was given podium time at the Republican Convention. Of course, the gun lobby can hardly be sure of what Trump will say next about the gun issue (or any other issue); indeed, he has suggested that maybe persons on the terrorist "no fly" list should be denied guns, in opposition to the NRA's position. Nevertheless, the NRA's vehement opposition to Clinton could not be more clear. According to Wayne LaPierre, the organization's longtime Executive Vice President, with Clinton as President, "you can kiss your guns goodbye." Trump has learned well how to feed the paranoia of hardcore gun activists, with his warning that Hillary Clinton's judicial nominees will "abolish the Second Amendment" and his comment that only "Second Amendment people" can do anything about it, a chilling invitation to take action against government officials, including President Clinton herself, by force of arms.
The political lines are drawn on the gun control issue more clearly and unmistakably than at any point since 2000. A Trump victory will no doubt be seen as the political resurgence of disaffected white Americans, mostly men, who see themselves as left behind and ignored by the elites. The triumph of previously disrespected "Second Amendment rights," as the Trump supporters interpret them, will be part of that Trump victory narrative. In contrast, given the political transformation of the Democratic Party on the gun issue since Sandy Hook, and Hillary Clinton's likely continued aggressive advocacy of gun control throughout the general election campaign, a Clinton victory will likely be interpreted by the political punditry as a resounding victory for the gun control forces. Unlike Obama in 2008 and 2012, a Clinton victory in 2016 could never be attributed to her avoidance of the gun issue.
A Trump victory will end any hope of progress toward sanity in our gun policies (and no doubt other policies) for the foreseeable future. A Clinton victory will reinforce the political wisdom of the Democrats' recent embrace of the gun issue and strengthen the Party's commitment to gun law reform for years to come. It may even cause some Republicans who abandon Trump to reevaluate the issue themselves.
More than any Presidential election in recent history, the outcome in 2016 will determine whether our nation will ever awake from the uniquely American nightmare of gun violence.