In the immediate aftermath of Friday’s terrible tragedy in Connecticut, there have been the predictable calls to enact new gun control legislation. The usual proponents of additional restrictions on guns have filled the airwaves with calls for immediate legislative action. Sen. Diane Feinstein has promised to introduce a new “assault weapons” ban on the first day of the new Congress next year. But, there are three very big reasons to believe that, for all the rhetoric, nothing will come of this new push for gun control.
1. Biden Gun Violence Task Force
This afternoon, President Obama convened a press conference announcing the formation of a blue-ribbon task force, chaired by VP Biden, to examine and recommend changes in our country’s gun laws. Most pundits are greeting this news as a sign that Obama is serious about pushing for additional gun control legislation. The formation of the task force, however, means almost the opposite.
In Washington, blue-ribbon task forces are reserved for issues where you want the appearance of taking action, without having to actually do anything. There’s a reason we’ve had so many task forces on government spending and the debt. Politicians want to look like they are doing something on an issue. By the time the task force completes its work, the national conversation will have moved on to a new issue.
Task forces are also effective ways to slow down a push for legislation. Legislators can defer taking action while the task force completes its “review” of the issue. Its a very convenient way to kick an issue down the road until after the immediate emotions have cooled.
2. 2014 Mid-Term Elections
The Democrats have dodged two election threats to their majority in the Senate. They clung to their majority in 2010 and even managed to get back two seats last month. But, the GOP gets a third bite at the apple in 2014, when the Democrats will be defending 20 seats against the GOP’s 13. In the 13th, Maine, the GOP would be strongly favored if Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) opts, as expected, to run for reelection. The Democrats, by contrast face a dangerous array of states.
Among the states Democrats will be defending are Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico and South Dakota. All of these states have very strong blocks of pro-gun voters. In Michigan, the issue could come into play if Sen. Carl Levin decides to retire.
Elections in 2014 are already expected to be a difficult cycle for Democrats. In the modern political era, virtually every party holding the White House has suffered losses in the middle of its second term. The lone exception was 1998, when Bill Clinton was in the middle of his second term. The GOP retained its majority in Congress, but lost a handful of seats. There were very particular circumstances surrounding that loss which aren’t likely to be repeated.
Regardless of how the fiscal cliff negotiations end, the economy will remain weak through 2014. There is even a chance the economy slips back into recession. It is unlikely Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) wants to add to the Democrats’ challenge by making gun control an issue in the midterm. Midterm’s have lower turnout than presidential elections, allowing an energized base of voters, like gun rights supporters, to have an out-sized impact on the results.
3. Obama’s Press Conference Today
Obama announced his gun task force at a press conference this afternoon. The tragedy in Connecticut has dominated the news cycle for the past six days. There have been innumerable stories on the shooting and the prospects for new gun control legislation. Yet, the very first question out of the White House press corps was on…the fiscal cliff. In fact, except for two quick questions at the end, every question at the presser was on the fiscal cliff.
This suggests the the press corps doesn’t really put a lot of stock into all the current noise about gun control. Its a jaded, cynical group of reporters and they have seen this dance often. If they really thought recent developments had put new momentum behind gun control legislation, they would have asked about it. That would be a big political story.
The chief challenge for gun control advocates is that it isn’t at all clear that their proposals would have prevented to shooting at Sandy Hook. The current proposals being discussed have been on gun control wish-lists for decades and don’t have any specific application to the events in Newtown.
Obama’s press conference today marked the zenith of the new push for gun control. Its momentum will fade as the raw emotions around the shooting recede. With it, the appetite for new gun control laws will fall away. Obama’s task force is recognition of that.