Democrat Killer?

Democrat Killer?

The West, the future and the political price of gun control.


New Mexico

Shannon Robinson is an unlikely prototype of a twenty-first-century opinion shaper. With disheveled gray hair, a ruddy face, a voice gravelly from years of chain-smoking Marlboros and a habit of sipping translucent maté tea from a thermos through a silver straw, Robinson looks more like a down-and-out prizefighter than a cutting-edge politician. Yet this 57-year-old is a Democratic state senator in New Mexico, and he informally heads a group of state politicians who call themselves the Bull Moosers. When an issue that the members of this caucus care about comes up for a vote in the Santa Fe Capitol, they signal its importance by putting their fingers up to their ears and imitating the antlers on a male moose. Bills to do with hunting, fishing, guns, trucks, boats, ranching and such are routinely greeted by a raising of the antlers.

The Bull Moosers are a potent alliance of rural representatives, many of them Hispanic, and politicians, like Robinson, from poorer city districts (Robinson represents an impoverished, heavily immigrant and crime-ridden neighborhood in Albuquerque). “Not many people care much about my part of town,” says Robinson, in between maté sips. “But these folks have done that for me. So when we talk about issues important to ranchers and the guys with boots on, I pay a lot of attention to that. I’m the number-one Bull Moose. One of those old stags. Got some chipped-off antlers.”

One of the Bull Moosers’ signature issues is opposition to gun control. For close to a decade, Robinson pushed for a concealed-carry law in the state, allowing residents to apply for permits to carry hidden guns. This year, with support from Democratic Governor–and talked-about 2008 presidential candidate–Bill Richardson, the law finally passed. Sponsored by Robinson, concealed carry was defended on the floor of the Statehouse by Democratic caucus chair John Heaton, a retired pharmacist from rural Eddy County, as well as Judiciary Committee chairman Joseph Cervantes–a young and rising star within New Mexico Democratic politics.

It was in many ways symbolic; only about 2,500 concealed-carry permits have been issued, and most of those are for the ruggedly remote rural areas of the state where, in practice, police have long turned a blind eye to people carrying concealed weaponry illegally. Nonetheless, Heaton, a tall, tanned man with a shock of gray hair parted down the left side and a kindly, grandfatherly face–a Norman Rockwell image brought to life–believes the bill’s passage was important. Fear that Democrats will restrict gun rights “is a major background issue with voters in the West, particularly in New Mexico,” a state with the country’s largest shooting range (the Whittington Center, in the northern town of Raton) and about 40,000 National Rifle Association members, the representative states. “Guns reflect the independence, and the independent nature, of the people of the West, and restrictions on certain rights don’t play very well. Frankly, being able to take that issue off the table makes a huge difference. There are many, many of my constituents who vote that issue by itself. I know people who are registered Democrats who vote Republican because they don’t think there’s any consistency on guns. At a national level they simply won’t vote for a Democratic candidate. There has to be overt action by Democrats to demonstrate that they are not opposed to guns, in fact support them and the civil use of them.”

A September 2002 poll published in the Albuquerque Journal found that 57 percent of New Mexicans supported allowing people who had completed a training program to carry concealed guns. Other polls suggested, not surprisingly, that a majority of urban residents in the state opposed concealed carry, while a strong majority of rural residents supported it. Since Democrats already do well in the population centers of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, it is these rural New Mexicans–Bull Moose by temperament, reared on stories of homesteading and gun-toting self-reliance, and living in areas scores of miles from the nearest law-enforcement officers–whom the Democrats have to woo to win back the state in national elections.

“Out here we have long stretches of eighty, ninety, 100 miles where there’s nothing between towns,” explains 64-year-old retired attorney Frank Witt, who lives on a ranch outside the southern New Mexico desert community of Carlsbad. His wife carries a Magnum in her car in case she breaks down far from the nearest population center and is menaced by a stranger on the road.

Witt votes Democratic down the line in state elections and claims to have contributed $15,000 to local and state candidates in 2004. But, he says, until the Democrats stop advocating national gun-control legislation, he will neither vote for national Democratic candidates nor give any money to the national party. “On health issues and economic issues and 75 percent of the issues, I would agree with the Democratic philosophy,” he declares in a sonorous bass voice. “I think [having only] a 15 percent tax on dividends is a hell of a subsidy for rich people. I think Democrats, if they’d wise up and focus on issues of importance rather than stupid gun-control issues, would find they weren’t disenfranchising all the sportsmen and people like myself. We would strongly support the Democrats. I understand they represent my interests. Without a doubt I do. By golly, leave me alone [on guns] and do some of the issues that are constructive, and I’ll be behind you 100 percent.”

No less a figure than Governor Richardson agrees with Heaton on the importance of cultivating voters such as Witt. A large man sitting in a small office, wearing a brown suede vest and heavy, battered boots, Richardson clearly revels in his image as the quintessential Westerner. “You have to talk about guns in the context of lifestyle, recreation, a way of life,” the Governor argues, “rather than as just a measure to prevent murders and deaths. Democrats need to move into a void in the West. The Bush Administration is scaring off recreationists, hunters and fishermen because of their extreme anti-environmental policies. It’s important to build alliances with these ranchers and fishermen and broaden the dialogue. The West is becoming more fertile Democratic territory. It’s important for Democrats on the East Coast not to make the gun issue a litmus test.”

Proponents of gun control are dismayed by these political developments, citing evidence that New Mexico, in addition to having the open landscape that so lures gun enthusiasts, also has the nation’s second-highest per capita homicide rate as well as a youth suicide rate twice the national average–two-thirds of these suicides are carried out with guns, most of which belong to the family of the victim. They also produce statistics (disputed by the pro-gun lobby) showing that concealed-carry laws don’t help protect law-abiding civilians from violent crime, and they point out that one of the few gun-control successes in recent years was the assault-weapons ban, which, until it expired last year, helped keep extremely potent weaponry off America’s streets while not limiting hunters’ rights to own less powerful arms. “They’re not good for public safety, and they’re not good for public health,” says Bill Jordan of New Mexico Voices for Children. “People don’t want them, but there’s a powerful gun lobby. And that’s very sad.”

Yet New Mexico’s gun-control advocates admit they have lost the debate in their state. They say they would rather spend their time and political capital fighting for things like expanded health insurance coverage–issues they feel offer them a better chance of winning and thus producing real improvements in people’s lives. Stick with gun control, and they lose the ability to win on other issues; let the gun-control language go dormant, and, they believe, few people will bolt the party because of it–after all, where else could they park themselves politically?–but some who had previously bolted might be lured back into the fold.

“When the handwriting is on the wall,” explains Albuquerque State Representative and gun-control supporter Gail Beam, “there’s nothing to be done. I do see it as a do-or-die issue, and yet my position was dead. I was really outnumbered. It wasn’t close.” Her colleague State Senator Dede Feldman goes further. “We’ve had the debate, and lost.” Now, Feldman says resignedly, it’s time “to concentrate on issues where you can get traction and mileage–such as healthcare in New Mexico, where you have a huge number without insurance. Don’t play defense. Play offense with new ideas and issues, on healthcare, on economic development from the bottom up.”

It’s hard not to sympathize with their position. After all, what’s the point in staking the moral and intellectual high ground on gun control, as I believe gun-control proponents have done, if in doing so you lose the larger war for political power and the ability to enact all the other aspects of your program?

Perhaps that trade-off would be worth it if gun-control laws would drastically limit the availability of deadly weapons; but with hundreds of millions of guns already in circulation in the United States, in practice, absent the forced disarmament of tens of millions of people, gun-control legislation may be more a gesture of political disgust at the gun industry than a transformative societal intervention. A few years ago the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) estimated there were 215 million guns in circulation; the National Academy of Sciences put the number at 258 million. Last year the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that from 2000 to 2003, there were more than 30 million “approved transfers” of guns (new and used). Close to forty states now have right-to-carry laws requiring handgun permits to be issued to all qualified applicants. Stop all gun sales tomorrow, and you’d still have a population better supplied with guns than many armies. Require the most thorough background checks possible, and, while you may lower the number of people shot dead by other people wielding legally purchased weapons, you’d still have to deal with a black market so flush with guns that it would be almost impossible to fully rein in.

In fact, when the numbers are examined, it could be argued that even the assault-weapons ban–the crown jewel of gun-control legislation–was largely symbolic. An unpublished National Institute of Justice report found that when the ban went into effect, in 1994, there were already about 1.5 million such weapons in private hands, but they were used in some 2 percent of gun-related crimes, according to a 2004 Washington Times article. The ban alone wouldn’t remove the already huge number of such weapons from the streets. The Brady Campaign, in seeking to assuage the fears of opponents, notes in its literature that existing weapons can be kept, unregistered, under a grandfather provision; and, according to such data, it would not prevent the vast majority of shootings (although it might force gangs, whose shooters have increasingly favored automatic weapons, to utilize black-market purchasing more than they currently have to). The recent tragic shooting spree in a Minnesota High School, for example, would not have been prevented by the assault-weapons ban; in fact, according to news reports, the killer, 16-year-old Jeff Weise, used his police officer grandfather’s service weapon–a gun that no realistic gun-control legislation would have taken off the streets.

That is not to say that individual gun-control laws, despite their on-the-ground limitations, have not had some measurable, and positive, impact: The Brady Bill’s mandating of background checks has likely prevented a number of people from legally buying guns that might have then been used against, say, women who have fled their abusive husbands. And regarding the assault-weapons ban, any reduction in the availability and usage of these deadly carnage-machines is clearly an extremely good thing. Yet Democrats in the Richardson mold increasingly are wondering whether being perceived as the party of gun control exacts an electoral price that is simply too high.

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.

Coastal Democrats and representatives from big cities may not like the pro-gun-ownership arguments or understand the emotional allure of the shooting range, but unlike in the 1990s, in the post-2004 environment a growing number are unwilling to go out on a limb and risk alienating potential party supporters over this issue. Last year Kerry put on camouflage gear and paraded with his guns on a duck hunt; yet he was hobbled by the perception that his party still advocated a one-size-fits-all national gun-control strategy. In the lead-in to the 2008 elections, it is that perception that these Second Amendment Democrats want to squash. Once Democrats are able to reassure Westerners that they will not take their guns away, say pro-gun lobbyists such as the self-proclaimed “ultra liberal” Linda Siegle, then, and only then, can they return to the issues of reining in sales of assault weapons, expanding background checks on buyers and passing laws requiring parents to keep weapons locked away so children can’t access them–issues even most gun supporters sympathize with.

And, as issues dear to Western culture take center stage in the remaking of the Democratic Party, so Western politicians are also rising to the fore. Not only did Nevada Senator Harry Reid recently ascend as Senate minority leader but Governor Richardson is widely talked about as a leading contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Richardson is one of four Democrats to win Mountain West governorships since 2000, all in states–Arizona, Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico–that voted for Bush in 2004. Last year Democrats won back control over the Colorado and Montana legislatures; held on to power in New Mexico (where there are 1.5 registered Democrats for every Republican); and made significant inroads in Nevada, where a minimum-wage initiative was passed over strong Republican opposition.

In other words, at the local level Western Democrats have found a winning formula during the Bush presidency, stressing issues like health insurance, the environment, quality of life, careful management of scarce water resources and investment in high-tech job creation. Howard Dean’s challenge is to craft a national agenda that resonates with Westerners in the same way; that creates a vibrant coastal/urban-interior/rural coalition of interests; and that challenges the GOP on the bread-and-butter issues that the governing oligarchs are most vulnerable on while neutralizing GOP attempts to divert attention by focusing on wedge issues such as guns.

True, in 2000 Al Gore was far more of a gun-control advocate than Kerry was in 2004; and Gore won New Mexico while Kerry lost it. But Gore won during a time of peace, riding on Clinton’s coattails. He won despite his position on guns, not because of it. Could he have won in 2004? Doubtful. On the other hand, could a convincingly pro-gun Democrat have won the state in 2004? Possibly.

“The Democrats could stand to modify their stance,” says Doug “Jack Diamond” Kunz, a retired security systems electrician and cowboy shooting enthusiast. Unlike most of his friends on the Albuquerque shooting range, Kunz voted for Kerry in 2004, but he did so with strong reservations about the party’s gun policies. “I’m in the middle where common sense resides,” he says. “No, we shouldn’t have total gun control. On the other hand, I don’t believe we need to have fancy assault weapons.”

One longtime inside player in Santa Fe, a larger-than-life shmoozer whose family has been at the forefront of state politics for close to half a century, always as Democrats, admitted to voting for Bush in 2004 because of the gun issue. If word got out on how he voted, he says half joking, “my dad would probably shoot me between the eyes. The one thing the Republicans have done real well is to cultivate local gun networks–through the NRA, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited. You’ve got to get to the sportsmen. The Republicans have been real good at working through these institutions at a grassroots level. That’s where it’s got to start.”

It would take only a few thousand such voters to change their votes in New Mexico and Nevada for a Democratic presidential candidate to win both those states; and while Colorado and Montana are harder nuts to crack, they are certainly on the party’s radar. Win three of these four states, or win two of them plus Iowa, and the Democrats have an Electoral College majority again.

As a part of the woo-the-West strategy, the Democratic Party recently set up a commission that explored the possibility of creating a Western regional primary early in the primary season–a single day on which the West as a bloc would flex its political muscle. If, as is widely expected, the proposal is approved later this year, overnight the West will become a key factor in determining the party’s next presidential nominee. Such a move would, not coincidentally, probably give a major boost to Richardson’s presidential ambitions.

A Western regional primary, says Richardson, “would mean the presidential candidate would have to be attuned to Western issues–and the gun issue would be important. It would force candidates to confront the gun issue more realistically, instead of just a blanket opposition. The core issues are access to healthcare, jobs and job protection, education. These are Democratic core issues. The gun issue? It should not be a litmus test. Because there are more and more Democrats who support the Second Amendment.”

“Richardson’s a very politically astute individual,” says Robert Goode, NRA regional representative for West Texas and New Mexico. “He knows you’re beating your head against a wall when you go after the firearms issue. And he backs his words with his votes.” Goode continues that, if a candidate like Richardson ran for the presidency, he believes the NRA would step back and not take a partisan stance on the election. Goode’s colleague Charles Weisleder, a 70-year-old NRA lobbyist, agrees. “Richardson,” says Weisleder, a bald man smiling broadly over coffee at an Albuquerque Shoney’s, “got a lot of gun votes because of what he said to us. A lot of people are driven by the firearms issue.”

Shannon Robinson believes the Democrats would have won the last presidential election–would have certainly won New Mexico, with its five Electoral College votes–if the wedge issue of guns had been successfully neutralized. “Folks need to understand that we need to fight issues that are significant to why people are Democrats,” the Bull Mooser asserts. “The Democratic Party is the party of inclusion. Bush’s latest budget has a very predictable effort to let people know ‘you’re on your own. You’re not going to get help from the federal government.’ The Democrats are the group trying to create success for all Americans.”

Quite simply, says Robinson, lighting another cigarette with the smoldering butt of the one just smoked, the stakes are too high to let an issue like guns rob Democrats of Electoral College votes in a state like New Mexico. “This is real,” he exclaims as he details the way in which he wants the party to get on-message. “We’re playing for the ability to rule the world. And what we have on the line is the conscience of the world, which is aghast that we had an election and didn’t discuss the new imperialism that Bush’s people have played us into.”

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