Democratic Underground

How to Win the Gun Vote: A Third Way Approach
January 9, 2002
by NewDem

There are many groups the Democrats do not do well with in elections. One group is gun owners. Gun owners voted for Bush by a 2:1 ratio in 2000. That was more than any other gap between the parties, from gender to religion. The stereotypical view of the far right is that owning a gun is every citizen's patriotic duty so they can overthrow a "tyrannical" government, while the stereotypical view of the far left is that all guns have to be banned from every private citizen.

The National Rifle Association used this issue in states like West Virginia in 2000 to convince gun owners that Al Gore would take away all of their guns if elected president. That was probably partly because of Gore's position on guns, that all gun owners should be licensed.

Positions like this play right into the hands of the National Rifle Association, which wants to turn the gun debate from a Clintonesqe Third Way, or DLC approach, of keeping guns out of the hands of those who should not have them, to a debate about the right for anyone to own guns. Democrats just cannot play into the hands of the NRA if they are to win. Some analysts also believe that the gun issue is why the Democrats failed to recapture the House and Senate in 2000.

There are some recent examples of the right way to pass gun safety laws, and the wrong way.

The right way: In 2000, voters, including a majority of gun owners, in two pro-gun states, Colorado and Oregon, overwhelmingly passed referenda requiring criminal background checks at gun shows. John McCain worked hard to assure the gun owners that the law would not end gun shows or take guns away. Americans for Gun Safety spent nearly $3 million for ads, phone banks, and direct mail urging passage of the referenda. The "Washington Post" said that the victories were "a stinging setback for the National Rifle Association."

The wrong way: Last year gun control groups in a county in Maryland barely passed a law preventing gun shows on public property. That played right into the hands of the NRA, because they could claim that the bill was evidence that gun control groups want to take away everyone's guns. What is the major difference between the two approaches? The first approach increased gun safety, while the second did nothing for gun safety and was anti-gun.

Fortunately the NRA is not as strong as one might think. Only 10% of gun owners are members of the NRA. Five out of seven NRA-backed senate candidates lost in 2000, and states that the NRA heavily campaigned in like Michigan and Pennsylvania, voted for Gore in 2000.

What the Democratic Leadership Council calls the "Third Way" on guns is one supported by the vast majority of Americans, including the vast majority of gun owners. The Third Way on guns is much like President Clinton's approach to guns throughout his presidency, including when he passed the Brady Bill. The Third Way calls for gun safety that keeps guns out of the hands of criminals, the insane and children, while not treating law abiding gun owners like sociopaths or criminals.

That is the key to winning the gun vote. Treat gun owners as equals, and do not act like you want to take away guns from law abiding gun owners. One way for the Democratic Party to not win gun owners is to look down on them.

One example of good gun safety legislation is the bipartisan McCain-Lieberman bill to close the gun-show loophole and crack down on gun crimes. The McCain-Lieberman bill would require background checks at each of the more than 4,000 gun shows held each year. Unlike previous legislation to close the gun-show loophole sponsored by former Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, this bill does not treat hobbyists who attend these shows like dangerous social misfits.

For example, it would not impose gun-show paperwork requirements on collectors who sell guns in their homes. Nor would it require that records from gun-show sales be sent to Washington. It also eliminates the point that prevented passage of the Lautenberg bill last year: the time limit for completing background checks. Gun-control groups have pushed for a period of up to three business days to complete the checks. The NRA wants no more than 24 hours.

The gun vote is a winnable vote for Democrats. Positions, such as Al Gore's in 2000, requiring the licensing of gun owners, will only scare away gun owners. Winning the gun vote is one major step to building a future Democratic majority in American politics.

Printer-friendly version
Tell a friend about this article Tell a friend about this article
Discuss this article