Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at the National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis, Friday, April 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

According to NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre, the 2012 election will “literally be a struggle for the survival of freedom in America.” On LaPierre’s pro-“survival-of-freedom” team there’s Mitt Romney, who headlined the NRA’s convention on April 13. On the other side, the one presumably intent on strangling freedom, there’s Romney’s opponent, President Barack Obama, whose re-election, says LaPierre, would “completely and forever” eradicate the Second Amendment. “Everything you and I and gun owners across America have fought to achieve over the past three decades could be lost as a result of just one presidential election,” he warned apocalyptically in a recent editorial for the NRA magazine.

Like so much in this year’s election, we are through the looking glass. Yes, the Republican Party is thoroughly in thrall to the gun lobby, which is what prompted Candidate Etch A Sketch—who boasted, “I don’t line up with the NRA” when he was running for the Senate in 1994—to become a lifetime member by 2006 and publicly kiss the NRA’s ring this year. And it’s Republican state representatives, armed with model legislation from ALEC, who have been the main sponsors of pro-gun laws like Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute, which allowed George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer, to go uncharged for forty-six days.

What’s less known is how they have been aided by Democrats. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, for example, was passed in 2005 without a single Democratic state senator casting a dissenting vote. In seven of the twenty states to pass bills akin to Florida’s, it was Democratic governors—like Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Arizona’s Janet Napolitano (now Homeland Security secretary) and Montana’s Brian Schweitzer—who signed those proposals into law. As for President Obama, his only reform of gun policy to date has been expanding gun owner rights by allowing guns into national parks, which led the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence to give him an F rating in 2010. Plans to beef up a national criminal background check system, which received renewed attention after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords last year, have stalled behind a curtain of White House silence.

We’re witnessing two phenomena here: first, the steady rightward drift of gun policy, with the Republican Party and associated groups like ALEC and the NRA leading the charge and with Democrats offering at best isolated acts of resistance; and second, the unmooring of partisan politics from policy and facts. In the right-wing echo chamber and at NRA confabs, the talk is all about how Obama is coming to steal your guns with his second-term “under the radar,” “stealth” plans to overturn the Second Amendment.

The irony is that by quietly trying to triangulate on gun control and not elucidating a clear policy, Democrats feed into the exact thing Obama claims he wants to avoid: empty partisan polarization. In a vacuum of records and agendas, voters are left to intuit the Democratic Party’s position, guided by large doses of paranoia served up by conservative pundits who free-associate gun control with the right-wing buzzwords of the day: freedom and the Constitution. A similar dynamic was at work in the 2004 presidential election, when in the absence of a coherent Democratic position Republicans fearmongered around gay marriage, calling it the end of civilization as we know it, perhaps contributing to John Kerry’s defeat that year.

When Democrats blunder into these issues on culture war terms, the results are usually disastrous; recall Obama’s gaffe about how voters “cling to guns or religion” in 2008. And as the NRA’s recent rhetoric makes clear, the Democrats’ silence will not protect them, either. But if and when they talk about the substance of the matter—whether it’s basic fairness for gays or background checks for gun buyers—they are on winning terrain. In poll after poll, majorities of voters, including independents, support stricter gun control laws and legal recognition of same-sex couples. And perhaps more important, by laying down some explicit policy markers, Democrats can stake a claim to be the party rooted in reality and sanity.