After the Gun-Control Defeat, How to Counter the Passion Gap

There was certainly no lack of angst or passion among gun-control advocates in the wake of their devastating defeat in the Senate. The problem, as President Obama correctly diagnosed, will be to summon that level of intensity on Election Days of the future–and stoke some of it among the massive numbers of rank-and-file voters who agree with them.

The answer, if there is one, lies in the new aggressiveness of people like Michael Bloomberg, Gabby Giffords, and Obama himself, who are convinced that their side has what it needs to create a winning campaign issue. That’s been the most striking development in this post-Newtown round of debate on gun laws–that is, if you don’t count the Senate’s failure Wednesday to do something as basic and popular as close gaping holes in the existing system of background checks.

Bloomberg was the first to play hardball in campaigns through his super PAC, Independence USA. The other group he founded, the bipartisan Mayors Against Illegal Guns, announced this week it is scoring senators on their gun votes–just like the National Rifle Association. Obama is urging Americans to “sustain some passion about this” and tell members of Congress that if they don’t support expanded background checks, “you will remember come election time.” There’s no doubt that Organizing for Action, the political group dedicated to his agenda, will remember.

So will Giffords, the former congresswoman who was shot in the head two years ago in Tucson, Ariz., and now leads gun-safety efforts through her group Americans for Responsible Solutions. “Mark my words: If we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s,” she wrote Wednesday night in a gut-wrenching New York Times op-ed.

A day before the Senate vote, Mark Kelly–Giffords’s husband--said they will try to oust Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a longtime Giffords friend, if he opposed sensible gun-safety measures. His vote Wednesday helped kill the bipartisan compromise that would have expanded background checks to online and gun-show sales. Yet Flake is not up for reelection until 2018, and therein lies the challenge: Will anyone remember this issue, and the impact of these votes, by then?

If people don't, it won't be because they agree with Flake and other opponents. There's a pile of evidence about where the public stands. The Democratic National Committee circulated a list of 11 major polls this year showing majorities of 83 percent to 92 percent in favor of universal background checks.

The DNC also publicized new state polling by Project New America, a Democratic group, that shows voters in Arkansas, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Ohio would be more likely to vote for senators who support background checks at gun shows. PNA President Jill Hanauer said this week’s vote on background checks should have been an easy “aye” vote for Republican senators from those states to cast. But most of them voted no.

Many blame the intensity gap for what Giffords describes as a Senate in thrall to the gun lobby. How intense is the NRA? Here’s an example from former Sen. Ted Kaufman, who was Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff in 1994,when Biden was the lead senator on a crime bill that included a 10-year assault-weapons ban. During Biden’s 1996 campaign, Kaufman told me, a fellow from Biden’s office was going fishing in rural southern Delaware. He drove down a dirt road, got out, and walked another mile, to a stream, “and some guy comes by and hands him an anti-Joe Biden leaflet from the NRA,” Kaufman said. “These are incredibly dedicated folks.”

Biden won reelection, of course, in part because Delaware is a small state where politics is practiced person to person. Taking advantage of that, the Biden campaign equipped each of its volunteers with a  photograph of the 14 frightening-looking assault weapons that the new law banned. The NRA had been telling hunters the government was taking away their shotguns, but the pictures told them a different story. “It really did work,” Kaufman said, and speculated about how Bloomberg could adapt that approach to a large-scale national campaign.

Big money, the kind that Bloomberg has been sinking into individual House races and that Obama and perhaps Giffords will be able to raise, may be the most potent antidote to the intensity gap. Gun-control proponents could also take note of the sophisticated approach that Bloomberg applied in a California House district last year. His chief goal was to replace a Democratic NRA ally with a less gun-friendly Democrat, but the one ad he ran in the race was about water pollution–because that was a more pressing concern in the district. And it worked.

Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin suggests another way of handling gun politics, one that does not rely on transforming 90 percent of the electorate into one-issue gun-control voters. Instead it builds on the fact that 41 out of 45 Republican senators voted against the expanded background checks–a measure Garin described as “the bright red line about what constitutes common sense and reasonableness.”

The idea would be to use the GOP opposition to reinforce a larger narrative about a party that’s obstructionist, unwilling to compromise and out of touch–that last view held by 70 percent of the public in one recent poll. The Senate vote on background checks, Garin said on a DNC conference call, would “deepen and burnish” that image. And that, he said, will cut Republicans off from the urban and suburban voters they need to win statewide and national races.

Individual Senate and House candidates will have to make their calculations next year about whether and when to heed the NRA. Bloomberg, Giffords and Obama are invaluable counterweights, as are the grieving Newtown parents and relatives of countless other gun-violence victims. But it is going to take a lot more than heartfelt advocacy to break the grip of the NRA and its fantasy that every American is constitutionally entitled to an unregulated arsenal in every closet.