DEMOCRATS ARE THE PARTY of widening government power; it stands to reason that they are the party of gun control. But when did gun control become the Democratic cause?
I wasn't glued to the convention in Chicago last week, but every time I turned on C-SPAN, it seemed yet another Democrat was railing against guns, demanding new restrictions, or cursing the National Rifle Association.
Just before the convention opened, President Clinton was calling for broader application of the Brady law. At a train stop in Ohio, he proposed a lifetime ban on handgun ownership by anyone convicted of a domestic-abuse misdemeanor. On Monday night, antigun crusaders Sarah and Jim Brady took the spotlight. "The Brady law," they claimed, "has stopped more than 100,000 convicted felons" from buying handguns. It hasn't, but no matter -- the Bradys want more controls. "Do it," they said, "for all our children."
Tuesday: Brooklyn Rep. Charles Schumer blasts the GOP, which "said no to an assault weapon ban and yes to the powerful NRA." Who, asks Mario Cuomo, "can argue today that Democrats are soft on crime after President Clinton banned assault weapons?"
Wednesday: California's Sen. Dianne Feinstein celebrates the president's "common-sense laws to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children." Gun control laws, says Dennis Archer, the mayor of Detroit, "help us keep Uzis and AK-47s off our streets." The Democrats' general chairman, Sen. Chris Dodd, renominates Clinton for office because "the guns that deal death should not be as easy to buy as the bread that sustains life."
Thursday: Ted Kennedy takes aim at "assault-rifle-coddling" Republicans. A plan to "take guns away from the hands of people who have been convicted," promises Pat Schroeder, is just "the next step in our culture." And in the convention's final speech, Clinton boasts that the Brady law "stopped 60,000 felons, fugitives, and stalkers" from getting guns (wasn't it 100,000 on Monday?). "We banned assault rifles," he adds for good measure.
Now, it doesn't come as a bolt from the blue that liberal Democrats -- and the Democrats at national conventions tend to be very liberal -- frown on the civilian ownership of guns. They view the Second Amendment as an anachronism, to be construed as narrowly and grudgingly as possible. That more guns equals more violence is as axiomatic to them as that rain falls down, not up. They cannot understand why any reasonable person wouldn't want to ban handguns and semi-automatics and "assault weapons." And they are quite certain that people who enjoy firearms, or who get passionate about the right of Americans to buy and own them, are "gun nuts."
But hating guns and gun owners doesn't win elections. Liberal Democrats may find guns repellent, but don't they realize how far from the mainstream that puts them? There are more than 231 million civilian firearms in the United States. More than a third -- 82 million -- are handguns. Nearly 1 out of every 2 US households owns a gun, and the average gun household owns four. What did the Chicago Democrats hope to gain by setting their face against so many of their fellow citizens?
Or by spitting so contemptuously on the NRA? Does the Democratic Party really have no civil words for an organization of 3.5 million? Less than two years ago, Democrats were swept out of hundreds of congressional, gubernatorial and state legislative offices. It is bemusing to see a party hoping for a comeback go out of its way to heap scorn on one of the nation's largest civic associations.
1994 should have taught Democrats that trashing gun owners is bad politics. In Rock the House a book analyzing that year's elections, conservative strategist Grover Norquist notes that according to exit polls, gun owners comprised one of the two groups most likely to vote in 1994. (Evangelical Christians were the other). "Anger over Clinton's passage of gun control was a key factor in defeating both Speaker Tom Foley and Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks, and in winning the Senate seats in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania," Norquist writes. Of the 276 congressional candidates endorsed by the NRA, 221 won.
Quick to denounce intolerance in others, too many liberals revel in their own prejudice against gun owners.
In 1992, liberal legal scholar Sanford Levinson pleaded with his fellow "progressives" to start listening to the huge swath of the public that opposes unreasonable gun control. "Such a willingness to listen -- and to concede that one might indeed have something to learn -- is an essential first step in repairing the breach between liberal Democratic Party elites and the gun-owning constituency most suspicious of them," he wrote in the journal Reconstruction.
His plea, Chicago shows, fell on deaf ears. Liberal Democrats still won't listen. They still haven't figured out that most Americans don't share their fear and loathing of guns. What Americans do fear and loathe is violent crime -- and they know that guns can make them safer.
But Democrats have a problem talking honestly about crime. Cracking down on criminals makes many of them uneasy; so they demonize guns as a substitute. It's not a very good one. In a nation where gun ownership nears 50 percent, it's not a very shrewd one, either.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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