Nationally, as the Democrats do the Electoral College math and realize the rising importance of the mountain and desert West to their presidential hopes, more and more are making this realpolitik calculation. If the South is now virtually unwinnable for national Democratic candidates, the party can craft a new Electoral College majority only if it can figure out how to make significant inroads into this region, into beautiful Open Road states like Nevada and New Mexico that, in 2004, went mildly Republican in the presidential election, while notching up significant victories or maintaining power for local and state Democratic Party politicians. And crafting a new stance on guns seems to a growing number of Democrats to be just the way to do that.
"The problem we have," says one senior Democratic Party strategist in Washington, DC, who declined to be identified, "is that we make gun owners feel like we're different from them, that we think there's something wrong with them. We have to get away from language that sounds like we're stigmatizing gun owners. We have to find a language of our own that's appealing. To the extent that Democrats are saying 'being a member of the NRA puts you out of moral bounds,' that's a problem. To my way of thinking, there is a fundamental question of cultural fit. People in Western states are not going to elect someone who doesn't fit the culture."
Despite the visibility of the Million Mom March and other gun-control campaigns of recent years, this argument goes, a recasting of the party's stance on gun control is unlikely to result in unmanageable blowback, in significant fracturing of the Democrats' major support base. A pro-gun Democrat who essentially said "guns are a states' rights issue, and if New Yorkers or Californians want to pass gun-control legislation, that's fine, but the party will no longer advocate national gun control laws" might turn off a few die-hard anti-gun activists, but most pro-gun-control Democrats would probably hold their noses and reluctantly accept it.
But is this a slippery slope--today the Democrats cave on guns, tomorrow on gay rights and abortion? As Democrats agonize over how to defuse the so-called "wedge issues"--used by Republicans to such devastating effect in toss-up states like New Mexico and Nevada--and refocus the national debate on economics and access to healthcare as well as other big-ticket items, some are urging politicians to backpedal on many fronts. It is arguable, however, that rethinking guns is not only less morally toxic and less politically costly than any effort to recalibrate the party's position on abortion or gay rights but could yield far greater political gains. For it is in the South and the Bible-thumping prairie states that the groundswell of religious fundamentalism has made gay marriage and abortion such hot-button issues (despite the Southerner's undoubted attachment to his weaponry). And there are simply too many other tendencies within the contemporary South and rural center of the country pushing voters into the Republican camp to make it easy for a Democrat to win large chunks of either region without abandoning many, if not all, of the party's core principles.
By contrast, it is at least conceivable that in closely divided Western states, where guns seem to excite more across-the-spectrum passion than do abortion and gay rights--notwithstanding the resonance of the conservative "morals" platform in Hispanic Catholic communities--a Democrat could win with a traditional Democratic message on most issues fused with a new rhetoric around the Second Amendment. Howard Dean's elevation to head of the DNC was made possible at least in part by state party chairs such as John Wertheim of New Mexico, who liked Dean's states' rights rhetoric around firearms and who believed that gambling on the potency of the gun issue was a chance worth taking.
Democrats will never win, and probably wouldn't want, the support of hard-core Second Amendment literalists who believe individuals have a right to own any and all weapons, from assault guns up to heavy artillery and bombs, with no limitations and no background checks. But they may win, and--in states where the Electoral College outcomes are decided by handfuls of votes--certainly do want, the support of men like "Cross Tie." Cross Tie is a fiftysomething shooter from a village south of Albuquerque who enjoys dressing up in nineteenth-century costume (his name, like those of other cowboy shooters, is an alias dug out of Western history books), driving out to the range and taking part in period cowboy shooting contests, but who also supports background checks on gun buyers and laws requiring adults to lock guns away from children--the only sort of legislation that conceivably could have prevented the recent Minnesota carnage. "There's a very low level of trust [of Democrats] now in the gun community," he says. Yet, were that trust to be re-established, Cross Tie, who works at a local Air Force base, says he might be prepared to vote Democrat.