A Detroit cop shooting offers fresh reason for the president to call for gun control in his State of the Union speech. Peter Beinart on why that’s a political dead end.
Barack Obama surely believes that America’s gun laws—which allowed Jared Loughner to buy the ammunition with which he shot 18 people in a matter of minutes—are insane. So do most people who’ve given the topic any thought. Heck, even Dick Cheney is moving in that direction.
So should Obama use his State of the Union address to renew the push for gun control, as many liberals on Capitol Hill are urging? No way; it’s not even close.
Julie Jacobson / AP Photo
For a decade and a half now, conventional wisdom has held that for a Democratic president, gun control is a political loser. And unfortunately, that conventional wisdom is absolutely right. First of all, there’s no clear majority for tightening America’s gun control laws. According to the Pew Research Center, the country is split down the middle on the issue. And interestingly, the trend since the 1990s has been towards less support for gun control. One reason, I suspect, is the continued decline in crime. When crime was higher, it led many suburban voters to back tougher gun control laws (just as it inclined them towards longer jail terms for criminals). But crime, which was the single most important issue in the 1988 presidential campaign, has faded into political irrelevance. And that has both reduced the percentage of Americans who support gun control, and, even more importantly, made those who still support it less passionate. Obama’s political base still wants tighter gun laws, but it doesn’t want them nearly as much as it wants other things. When Obama was seen as waffling on gays in the military, for instance, liberals went berserk. His refusal to touch gun control, by contrast, has elicited a fraction of the discontent.
Unlike in the case of health care, where Obama took a big political risk and changed public policy for decades, gun control would be a political risk with no public policy payoff at all.
The Giffords shooting isn’t likely to change that. Unlike crime, which was a constant presence, continually reminding Americans of the absurdity of allowing dangerous people to buy high-tech weapons, episodes like the one in Tucson produce a temporary spike in support for gun control, which quickly recedes. According to a CNN-Gallup poll, 28 percent of Americans said the Giffords shooting made them more likely to support gun control. But according to Pew, there were similar spikes after Columbine and Virginia Tech, and they had no lasting effect.
So there’s little chance Obama will lose votes by avoiding the gun issue. He just doesn’t have a big problem among the kinds of voters who support gun control: minorities, urbanites and white liberals. What he does have is a serious problem with gun control opponents, who are disproportionately white, male non-college educated and rural. They are, in other words, exactly the people with whom Barack Obama struggles, even compared to other Democrats. That’s why Hillary Clinton beat him by ten points in the Pennsylvania and Ohio primaries and almost 40 points in the West Virginia primary. And she did so, in part, by clobbering him for having said that in times of economic distress, working-class whites “cling to guns or religion.”
Obama won some of those voters in the general election, largely because they were sick of Republican rule and had no confidence that John McCain could handle the nation’s economic meltdown. Their economic concerns, combined with Obama’s overwhelming support among blacks, Hispanic and younger voters, allowed him to win North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Colorado, Indiana and Nevada—all states where gun control is a political loser. (By contrast, Obama didn’t lose a single state where gun control is a political winner). The country’s ongoing economic woes may hurt Obama with these voters in 2012, especially if the Republicans nominate a candidate who is more economically literate than McCain, and there’s not much he can do about it. But embracing gun control would a gargantuan unforced error. Given his charisma and emotional connection to activist liberals, which exceeds Bill Clinton’s, Obama will likely succeed in turning out the Democratic base in 2012. Far less certain will be his capacity to hold onto the slice of the white working-class vote he got in 2008. Identifying himself with gun control would make that significantly harder.
And identifying himself with the issue is all Obama would do, since with Republicans in control of the House, there’s little chance meaningful gun-control legislation would pass. So unlike in the case of health care, where Obama took a big political risk and changed public policy for decades, gun control would be a political risk with no public policy payoff at all. Any other great ideas?
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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