April 1, 2001
New Gun Control Politics: A Whimper, Not a Bang
by Joseph P. Tartaro
On Sunday mornings every week, the political pundits and television talking headsnetwork and cablegive you a good indication of how the hottest public policy issues of the past week are playing. They vie with one another to interview the public figures who are at the center of political action, or experts who can tell you how Congress, the Administration and the public are dealing with a particular issue.
The subjects on all the shows are usually determined by the news of the past week, and that was the case on March 11, when the political news shows responded to the March 5 school murders at Santana High School in Santee, CA. Given the topic it was no surprise that either Attorney General John Ashcroft, or Education Secretary Roderic Paige or both were featured on almost all of that Sundays political shows.
Neither representatives of the Bush Administration said anything that gave the anti-gunners encouragement. The performances by Ashcroft and Paige were in marked contrast to how their predecessors in the Clinton cabinet would have handled similar questions, or as they actually did after the Columbine High School murders in 1999.
Media Antis Disappointed
The Ashcroft and Paige statements, following a similar sober approach by President Bush, didnt stop some of the show regulars from harping on the gun control issue.
The most interesting exchange, I thought, occurred on ABCs This Week near the end of the program when the show regulars discuss the issue du jour.
Not surprisingly, George Stephanopolous, the former Clinton aide, and Sam Donaldson began bemoaning the fact that the latest shooting had not stirred Congress to action on new gun control legislation. They also expressed disappointment that the new President, George W. Bush, had not been inspired to make headlines with a call for more gun control.
Actually, Stephanopolous and Donaldson didnt seem to care what kind of new gun control might be enacted, only that they wanted more.
Stephanoplous was moved to note the contrast between the Bush and Clinton Administrations on this issue.
If this had happened a year or two ago, you can bet that Clinton would have been calling for new gun legislation on Capitol Hill, he noted.
Syndicated columnist George Will, another regular on the show, was quick to point out that using the shooting to seek new gun laws was pointless because more laws would not have prevented the shooting any more than existing gun restrictions had helped. He noted that the suspect in the Santee shooting had already violated all kinds of laws.
Cokie Roberts, the other show host, focused on political realities of gun control. She pointed out that the gun control issue had proved to be a liability to Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign and a bust for the Democratic efforts to regain Congress.
Pushing aside Stephanopolous and Donaldsons claims that Gore had carried the states of Pennsylvania and Michigan despite heavy pro-Bush campaign efforts by the NRA, she noted that after spending $90 million in an effort to regain control of the House, the Dems could only claim one clear victory outside of California.
Thats their $90 million House member, Roberts said.
The entire exchange was brief, because when Will and Roberts pointed out the practical and political futility of pushing for new gun laws, Donaldson quickly changed the subject.
NY Times Article
The New York Times Week in Review section for March 11 had even more bad news for the anti-gunners. The fact that the nations newspaper of record, long a staunch supporter of more repressive gun laws, would admit to itself, its readers and especially the editors of other newspapers around the country that the gun issue is a non-starter was significant.
The lead article by James Dao in that section focused on the new political realities of the gun control issue in Washington. This is a situation that people close to the issue have been aware of and is one of the reasons why the anti-gunners and especially the Million Mom Marchers are shifting their focus to state capitals.
The headline on Daos article read: New Gun Control Politics: A Whimper, Not a Bang.
In the days following shootings at schools in California and Pennsylvania last week, the new reality of gun control politics became starkly clear, Dao began. 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. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, one of Washingtons most aggressive gun control proponents, simply suggested a voluntary code of ethics for gunowners and their families.
It was a strikingly muted response from a movement that, less than a year ago, thought it had finally reached the gates of political power, Dao continued. You are the future now, declared Sarah Brady of Handgun Control Inc., to the hundreds of thousands (sic) at the Million Mom March. We must either change the minds of lawmakers on these issues or, for Gods sake, this November lets change the lawmakers.
But the laws didnt change, and neither did many of the lawmakers. Instead, a strongly anti-gun control governor was elected President. The euphoria of last years march is a distant memory (one of its offshoots, the Million Mom organization, laid off 30 of its 35 employees on March 9) and the gun control movement, despite far-ranging efforts to match the National Rifle Association in raw political power, seems to have fallen farther behind.
And then Dao quoted a staffer for the House leader of the Democrat minority.
I dont think views have changed in the Democratic Party on this issue, said Laura Nichols, spokeswoman for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the minority leader. But the political reality has changed dramatically.
What happened? Dao asked. Obviously, the election of President Bush, a long-time ally of the NRA, put a towering obstacle to gun control legislation in the White House.
Finally, Dao got down to the nitty-gritty of Capitol Hill.
But many centrist and conservative Democrats have also concluded that gun control has become their partys albatross, costing it crucial votes among white, male, rural voters in key states across the South and Midwest, Dao wrote. And their concerns have touched off a roiling debate within the party over whether to play down or even discard the issue.
Gun control, lamented Steve Cobble, director of Campaign for a Progressive Future, a liberal political action committee, has become the shorthand for why Democrats dont do well.
Even President Clinton, a staunch advocate of gun control, offered what for gun control advocates was surely a dispiriting post-election assessment of the rifle associations strength, Dao continued. They probably had more to do than anyone else in the fact we didnt win the House this time, and they hurt Al Gore, he said.
The New York Times article went on to give more reasons why gun control is likely to get little attention on Capitol Hill in the next two years, and painted an even gloomier future for the Million Moms. While this may be a disheartening message for Sarah Brady and friends, it does not mean that gunowners should ignore the issue of gun politics. What the Times, and Will and Roberts are saying can be reality only if gunowners and civil rights activists remain attentive and active in the public policy debate.
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