Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada speaks to reporters following the Democratic policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
In the wake of the horrific mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, support for re-banning assault weapons grew exponentially inside and outside of the Beltway. It's only natural when an AR-15 is used to slaughter twenty schoolchildren and six educators, only months after another was used to shoot seventy-one people inside a movie theater.
Yesterday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—seen as recently as 2006 recruiting pro-gun Democrats to run in House races—said that Newtown was a “tipping point, a galvanization for action.” He’s now calling for an assault weapons ban, expanded background checks, and is ordering Chicago municipal pension funds to divest from all gun manufacturers.
Indeed, it was a tipping point. Five days after the shootings, President Obama stood in the White House briefing room and explicitly called for another assault weapons ban, and Vice President Joe Biden is expected to recommend one this week. Senator Dianne Feinstein announced she’d introduce a strong bill in the Senate, and all the pieces looked to be in place.
But in the past twenty-four hours, there have been disturbing signs of pre-emptive surrender by key Democrats on the assault weapons ban.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told a PBS affiliate in Las Vegas that he didn’t think the assault weapons ban could pass the House, and thus he wanted would “focus” on what could. His comments echoed many pro-gun talking points about Hollywood and violent video games, and Reid openly tried to throw cold water on the gun-control movement:
“We have too much violence in our society, and it’s not just from guns. It’s from a lot of stuff. And I think we should take a look at TV, movies, video games and weapons. And I hope that everyone will just be careful and cautious. […]
“Let’s just look at everything. I don’t think we need to point to anything now,” he said. “We need to be very cool and cautious. […]
“I think that the American people want us to be very cautious what we do. I think they want us to do things that are logical, smart, and make the country safer, not just be doing things that get a headline in a newspaper.”
On Monday, Representative Mike Thompson—appointed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to head the House’s gun violence prevention task force—also signaled surrender on the assault weapons ban, according to Politico:
Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Democrats’ gun violence task force, said the magazine ban and universal registration requirement would be far more effective than an assault weapons ban without the political cost.
“Probably the most recognizable thing you can say in this debate is ban assault weapons,” Thompson said. “But the other two issues” – forbidding high-capacity ammunition magazines and requiring universal registration for gun purchases – “those two things have more impact on making our neighborhoods safe than everything else combined. Anytime you try and prohibit what kind of gun people has it generates some concern.”
It’s not that Reid and Thompson are necessarily wrong in their political calculus—maybe an assault weapons ban can’t pass the House.
But publicly dooming the effort before it starts is self-enforcing, and repeats a Democratic proclivity that has frustrated progressives to no end: heading into negotiations and votes with a pre-compromised position.
Americans favor an assault weapons ban 58-39, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll released Monday. The president is about to stick his neck out and propose it, and then push for it in the weeks to come. Moreover, as Thompson and Reid both correctly noted, it’s the headline-grabbing issue here: rampages with assault weapons are what is driving the momentum on gun control.
Democrats would naturally be wise to push forward aggressively on the ban, as they have mostly done up to this point. If they fail, they fail. At least they’d likely be able to wrest more concessions from the GOP on background checks and high-capacity magazine bans during the legislative battle, and potentially force Republicans into a difficult vote where they would effectively be supporting military style weapons on the street.
Yet, it appears Reid and Thompson—absolutely key figures in the legislative battles in the Senate and House respectively—want to drop the assault weapons ban from the legislative agenda. It’s not yet clear that they will, but even signaling a lack of confidence is damaging to both the legislative prospects for meaningful gun control, and for public attitudes and activist motivation. And it’s not the debate demanded by what happened in Newtown.
For more on the shift in gun control rhetoric to the left, including Rahm Emanuel's efforts to fight gun violence, see George Zornick's previous blog post.