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Progressive Op-Ed Writer: Guns Are A Losing Issue For Democrats

(Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)

Matt Yglesias and I aren’t likely to agree on very much. He’s firmly on the left and I’m not. That’s a recipe for disagreement if ever there were one. I mean, Yglesias helped found Vox, for crying out loud.

But those days are behind him. He left to start a Substack, reportedly for greater editorial independence, and he apparently still does the odd op-ed.

In this one, he says something I actually agree with.

Gun control is back on the national agenda. While the killings in Georgia two weeks ago mostly prompted dialogue about motives and anti-Asian hate crimes, the murder of 10 last week in Colorado led President Joe Biden to urge Congress not “to wait another minute” before acting on gun regulation proposals, including a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.

The urgency is understandable. But from a political standpoint, Democrats would be better off focusing on parts of their agenda that have more realistic prospects of success. It’s not just that the odds are low for passing even modest gun-control legislation. It’s that the kinds of measures that are politically feasible would have little effect without policing reform, while those that would save large numbers of lives are politically toxic.

For eight years, between John Kerry’s defeat in 2004 and Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, progressive leaders were pretty successful in keeping the gun-regulation issue off the national agenda. When he was head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and later the House Democratic Caucus, then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel recruited many explicitly pro-gun candidates to run in tough House districts in 2006 and 2008 — and many of them won.

Democrats with safer seats didn’t stop believing in gun control, but they didn’t push it either. Liberal state legislatures were free to continue enacting gun rules, which many of them did. But after watching first Al Gore and then Kerry go down to defeat, party leaders decided that they no longer wanted to lose elections over an issue that is deeply important to conservative gun owners but that progressives regard as less pressing than health care, climate change, immigration and other matters.

Then came the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Beyond the specifics of the issue, and despite the popularity of Democratic ideas such as background checks, Republicans are the more trusted party on guns.

Why? Maybe it’s that voters see progressives as defining “the gun problem” in fairly expansive terms — that what those liberals really want is to see U.S. levels of gun ownership and violence brought down to those of Europe. To be clear, that sounds fine to me — but it’s not fine to the electorate, and the vast majority of the people who actually care passionately about this topic are on the conservative side. So launching an argument about guns costs Democrats votes without bringing about any change in policy.

Yglesias is still clearly a fan of gun control–he’s unlikely to be writing Bearing Arms op-eds anytime soon–but he’s not wrong about how this is a losing issue for Democrats and has been for years now. However, I think he’s failing in one particular area of his analysis, and that’s by looking at guns and gun control as a conservative/liberal issue, and that’s not really accurate.

First, there are the libertarians. These folks tend to value all civil liberties to an incredible degree, which includes their gun rights. There’s a running joke in libertarian circles that you’re not really a libertarian until someone says you’re not a real libertarian, but most will agree that support for gun control is pretty non-libertarian.

Then you have the independents out there. These are the people who don’t identify with any party whatsoever and don’t think twice about voting for a Democrat if they’re the right person for the job, but who are vehemently pro-gun as well. Yes, those people exist.

But beyond that, though, Yglesias is right, and I think the Democrats know he’s right.

President Joe Biden ran on gun control and was outspoken about his support for gun control…while in the primaries. Once he got to the general election, talk of gun control evaporated. His campaign wanted to contrast his plans with Trump’s, but they knew if they trotted out gun control, it would sink Biden’s presidential hopes yet again. So they simply didn’t mention it. They were smart and didn’t remove it from his website because they knew that would become the story, but they just shut up about it.

If gun control were a winning issue, why would they do that?

They wouldn’t.

Their hope is that they can cram through gun control early and hope that vulnerable Democrats will be able to distance themselves from that legislation prior to the midterm elections in 2022. I don’t think it’ll work like they plan, though. They can pass it, but that’s just a gift to the GOP and we all know it.

Apr 15, 2021 2:30 PM ET