The recall of two state legislators in Colorado did not end gun control, but it should be a wake up call for its advocates.
Last Tuesday was a busy day for political reporters. In addition to President Obama’s speech over the ongoing crisis in Syria and the primary elections in New York City, two recall elections in Colorado were treated as bellwethers for the future of gun control. Gun rights advocates and organizations like the National Rifle Association succeeded in removing two Democratic members of the state senate, John Morse and Angela Giron, who had been instrumental in helping to pass more restrictive gun laws in response to the Aurora and Sandy Hook massacres. While some in the media have been blowing these recall attempts way out of proportion, the fact that two state legislators lost their seats is hardly a Waterloo for groups supporting gun control.
The day after Scott Brown’s upset win of the Massachusetts special election to replace Ted Kennedy in the Senate an old coworker of mine, a veteran of many political campaigns, sent out a message to remind me and a lot of my politico friends to ignore the national blame game that was engulfing the media because, “specials are won on the ground.” What he meant was that special elections, elections that don’t take in November every two years, are composed of a much smaller portion of the electorate than their regular counterparts. People who don’t follow politics tend to skip them, and as a result they tend to be dominated by highly opinionated and motivated people, like NRA activists.
Indeed a survey of recent major recall elections reveals they don’t really predict much of anything anyway, despite the attempts of pundits to argue otherwise. There were all sorts of predictions about the future of California after Gray Davis’s recall, but after an awkward Governator interregnum, California has gotten even more dominated by Democrats under Governor Jerry Brown. The fact that Scott Walker survived a recall attempt in 2012 didn’t lead to Wisconsin “going red.” In the fall of the same year Obama carried the state and Wisconsin sent Tammy Baldwin, a liberal Democrat if ever there was one, to Washington D.C. as a senator. In fact, recalls are at a historic high right now, probably because of things like high levels of polarization between the parties and the decline of divided government at the state level rather than because of any specific issue.
What the Colorado recalls do tell us is that much of the conventional wisdom about the political reality of gun control remains true. It is still an issue where the divide over it is dominated by the parties. The Democratic Party remains home to the vast majority or politicians open to new regulations about firearms, while the Republican Party still remains home to the vast majority of politicians opposed to any new ones. Yes there are “pro-gun” Democrats and moderate Republicans open to stricter controls, but they are in the distinct minority in both of their parties. This means that partisan dynamics and not appeals to “do the right thing”, presidential speeches or horrific national tragedies will continue to determine if we impose new restrictions on guns or roll back the ones, which could be called “minimalist” compared to most other nations’, we already have.
The biggest impact the recalls will probably have is undermining that the conventional narrative that a lot of gun control advocates like New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg have been advancing as of late. Bloomberg has unfortunately taken to arguing it’s not public opinion or organized opposition that’s blocking sensible gun control, but feckless and cowardly politicians that won’t “show courage” or “do the right thing.” The real reason gun control is difficult to enact is that lots of Americans don’t want more restrictions on guns and while they may not be in the majority, they are highly organized, motivated and willing to engage in the hands on work of practical politics. Until that changes, or gun control advocates become equally organized, motivated and willing to engage in the hands on work of practical politics, the current policy environment is likely to continue. Which unfortunately means George Zimmerman probably won’t be losing his gun anytime soon.
Photo Patrick Feller/Flickr