In the middle of his first term, President Clinton pushed sweeping changes to the federal criminal code. Among these changes was a ban on assault weapons. The political battle over the legislative proposal raged for months in 1994. It was finally enacted in early September. Two months later, Democrats in Congress were swept out of power in an historic landslide for the GOP. Could history repeat in 2014?
After the GOP swept to power in 1994, gun control largely disappeared from the Democrat agenda. When he ran for President in 2000, Al Gore tried to reinvent himself as a supporter of gun rights. He still lost West Virginia, then firmly in the Democrat column, and his home state of Tennessee, largely as a result of his past support for gun control. Had he won these states, he would have been President.
The federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004. There was no serious attempt to renew it. Even after Democrats won control of Congress in 2006, and after they had complete control of government for twp years, there weren’t any significant moves to reinstate the ban.
The current push for a new assault weapons ban in the wake of the Newtown shooting isn’t as much about the ban itself as trying to make the GOP look unreasonable ahead of the looming budget showdown. The 23 “executive actions” Obama issued this week were fairly muted and probably far less than he could have issued if gun restrictions were the central goal. That said, there is a reason Democrats have avoided the gun issue for the past 20 years.
While recent polls show a slim majority in favor of banning assault weapons, the intensity is all on the side of gun rights supporters. Their political activism is tied directly to supporting gun rights. For supporters of gun control, the issue is one of many that effect their vote. A recent Pew survey found that 25% of those who support gun rights had donated money on the issue, against just 5% of gun control supporters who did.
In 2014, Democrats will be defending 20 seats against the GOP’s 13. Most of the Dem seats are in red states with large numbers of gun rights supporters. Banning any guns is not a winning issue in states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, West Virginia or North Dakota. The issue could make states like Colorado, New Mexico, North Carolina or Virginia very competitive.
For 20 years, Democrats have tried to convince voters that they weren’t coming after their guns. Now, they are coming after their guns. 2014 could be a replay of 1994.