Lessons for Gun Control: Learning to Lose Right

Lessons for Gun Control: Learning to Lose Right

Lessons for Gun Control: Learning to Lose Right

Gun control advocates can take a page from Harry Truman’s long struggle for public health insurance. 


Edwina Grant, who lost her son to gun violence, holds his picture as she demonstrates with CeaseFirePa at a rally in the Pennsylvania Capital building Wednesday, January 23, 2013, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A “shameful day,” said a furious President Obama after the Senate blocked gun control in April. He accused the gun lobby of lying and promised that the vote was “just round one.” The president was angry, and not especially contrite or gracious. That’s good.

For those of us who study health policy, its déjà vu all over again. Health reform has always faced powerful lobbies, defiant and organized opponents, timid legislators, a fight that goes on for many rounds. This history offers one crucial lesson for gun control: Learn how to lose right.

Medicare might never have passed had President Harry Truman not been such a good, angry loser. Truman first proposed national health insurance in 1945. He did a terrible job negotiating with Congress; his repeated efforts never went anywhere. Still, Truman never gave up. Even after he left office, he pounded away at the selfish lobbies, special interests, “moss covered” senators who denied the American people something they wanted and needed. “Give ’em hell,” yipped Harry’s supporters, and he continued to do just that.

Truman kept the issue alive and in the public eye. His health advisors stayed on in Washington and continued the fight. The idea remained popular. In 1960, vice presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson listened to the tapes of his campaign speeches and discovered that Truman’s healthcare reform—now reduced to health insurance for people over 65 and called Medicare—always got the loudest applause.

When President Johnson passed Medicare in 1965, he announced that he would travel to Independence, Missouri, and sign the bill in front of Harry. As he did, LBJ said “It was Harry Truman who planted the seeds of compassion and duty which have today flowered….” He went on to say that by fighting and fighting for what seemed like a hopeless cause, Truman had kept the issue alive. He may have lost, but he never gave up.

Contrast President Bill Clinton. He was far more eloquent about his own health reform than Truman had ever been: “Our grandchildren will find it unthinkable,” said Clinton in an address to the nation, “that there was…a time in this country when hard-working families lost their homes, their savings their businesses, lost everything simply because their children got sick…” Like Truman, Clinton faced tough opponents, ran into ferocious criticism, made errors and lost the fight for healthcare.

Then Clinton made his really big mistake. He walked away from the cause. He ceded the field to Republican opponents to define what had happened: Hillarycare was a massive, arrogant, Rube Goldberg over-reach.

As Clinton wrote in his autobiography, “I felt bad that Hilary and [health care advisor] Ira Magaziner were taking the rap for the failure.” He mused that maybe he should have tried welfare reform first. What happened to the families who “lost everything” because their children got sick? Forgotten. The Clinton reform disappeared without a trace. Truman continued to fight and kept his cause alive. For Clinton, health reform was more of a tactical matter—jettisoned when it became a political liability.

Gun control advocates have faced a similar history. They were defeated at the ballot box in 1994, as the National Rifle Association punished rural Democrats for the assault weapons ban. They suffered another defeat in 2001, when opposition to gun control was credited as a factor in George W. Bush’s contested victory. Political scientists still debate what had actually happened. The political pros in both parties believed they knew. Democrats shied away from gun control, allowing self-avowed Second Amendment advocates to dominate the debate for more than a decade.

Gun control advocates endured another wrenching defeat in April. Ninety percent of the electorate favors more stringent background checks. The president and his allies mobilized a strong majority in the Senate,whose constituents comprise almost two-thirds of the American people. Given the filibuster, and given the Senate’s massive over-representation of small rural states, this wasn’t enough.

That’s disappointing. Yet Harry Truman would have approved of what Democrats did next. President Obama—quite uncharacteristically—talked furiously about lies, failures and the safety of our children. The father of one child killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, warned: “We are not going away. We are not defeated and we will not be defeated.” Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords added that if the Senate refuses to change the laws, “then we need to change the members of the US Senate.”

Real gun reform was never going to be easy. The effort still took a giant step forward this spring. Its supporters learned to lose. On the hard issues, that’s the only path to winning. You can almost hear Harry shouting “Give &rlsquo;em hell.”

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