Guns and Politics

In the days following the March shootings at schools in California and Pennsylvania, “the new reality of gun-control politics became starkly clear,” The New York Times reported. “Unlike in 1999, when Democrats reacted almost immediately to the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado with demands for tough new gun restrictions, there were few calls to action.”
  Last November, Colorado and Oregon passed measures requiring background checks at gun shows, despite opposition from the National Rifle Association. At the national level, though, it’s a different story. A March segment on National Public Radio declared gun control an issue that’s gone into “hibernation.” There may be nothing new about kids killing each other with guns, as the NPR story put it, but there is something new about the response. “Silence from Democrats is a sea change.”
  Why has gun control disappeared as a political issue? According to Michael Munger, Duke professor and chair of political science, “it has different salience for supporters and opponents.” Says Munger: “Supporters of gun control see it as one of many issues. They don’t vote solely, or even primarily, based on a candidate’s gun-control position. That’s not true for opponents. For people who are against gun control, it is a litmus test. If a candidate favors gun control, such voters will vote against that candidate, even if they know little about the opponent.”
  Munger says Al Gore lost several states—“at least arguably including West Virginia, Tennessee, and Arkansas”—because of his strong stand in favor of gun control. Even relatively modest calls for trigger locks and gun-show background checks tend to alienate many white, rural, and male voters across the South and Midwest. “For Democrats, gun control just confirms support. For Republicans and independents, gun control creates support, bringing people to the polls who might otherwise stay home.”
  Democrats have gotten the message, says Munger. Their new strategy of “hear no, see no, speak no gun control” will position them, in his view, to take over the Senate in 2002. The Democrats have to be able to run candidates in the Republican-controlled states, and to hold the Democratic-controlled states. Munger says four of the Democratic seats that have to be held, and eleven of the Republican seats that have to be taken, are in firmly anti-gun-control states. 
  So gun control is being sacrificed for political gain—and the Democrats will thereby gain the Senate majority, he predicts. “The Republicans are really, really vulnerable, because just by accident of Senate election classes, more of their incumbents (twenty versus thirteen) are up for reelection.”

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