Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech and the muzzled Democratic response

So here we go again; we all know the drill by now. Politicians of all stripes will offer their “thoughts” and “prayers” to the victims’ families. Special-interest groups on the left will cite the latest bloodbath as proof that we need gun control. Special-interest groups on the right will cite the latest bloodbath as proof that we need more gun ownership. Religious right activists will blame the tragedy on the video violence propagated by “Hollywood liberals.” And cable television will rerun the same video clips umpteen times, fill the airways with talking ranters, and thus leave the impression that nothing else is happening anywhere in America or overseas, probably for the next week or so. (Which at least means that Don Imus gets a reprieve.)

This is what happened after two twisted kids shot up the Columbine high school on April 20, 1999. We witnessed the national wringing of hands, the convening of symposia and the ritual assignations of blame – and now we’ll do it again, of course, before settling back into our routines until the next massacre provides a temporary jolt.

But in that spring of 1999, we also witnessed something that we are not likely to see replicated this spring, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings: The spectacle of elected Democrats clamoring to crack down on the easy purchase of over-the-counter weaponry. Those days are over. The gun-rights lobby has prevailed. The rest of the western world is decrying the American "gun culture" this afternoon, but the Democrats wouldn't dare.

At this writing, we don’t know all the facts about our latest gun marauder. We do know, however, that police found a receipt which indicates that 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui purchased one of his weapons, a Glock .9mm semiautomatic, last month. We don’t know whether he bought it from a licensed legal firearms dealer or from a gun show dealer or from a crook on the street, and we don’t know whether he bought it in Virginia or another state. But the odds are strong that, regardless of the specific circumstances, he was greatly aided by the general ease of purchase. Virginia’s gun laws, for instance, are famously lax; there is no gun registration, and no mandatory waiting period. And, nationally, there are no mandatory background checks at gun shows; nor does Virginia choose to impose its own purchase restrictions.

But you won’t hear much about this from the Democratic presidential candidates, nor from the congressional Democratic leaders (indeed, nothing thus far), because they have long concluded that, as an issue, gun control is a political loser.

They first sensed this during the 1990s, after President Clinton prodded his Democratic Congress to enact a ban on assault weapons. The National Rifle Association promptly went to work, with its cash and electoral muscle, and helped to oust at least a dozen pro-ban Democrats during the 1994 congressional elections – thus playing a key role in the ascent of Newt Gingrich and his conservative Republicans allies in that historic year.

Democrats rightly concluded, in the wake of that debacle, that even though a majority of Americans (particularly suburban moms) professed to favor gun control, they nevertheless were not motivated to cast their votes on the basis of that issue; by contrast, hunters and Second Amendment adherents – including a lot of the blue-collar males that Democrats would dearly love to enlist - were strongly motivated to punish those politicians who seem to be soft on gun rights. (Moreover, support for tighter gun laws has been declining ever since.)

Then came the 2000 presidential race. I well recall that Vice President Gore, right after Columbine, was talking up the need for “sensible” gun-purchase restrictions. He appeared on Larry King’s CNN show and complained that “we have a flood of handguns that are too deadly,” and that an existing ban on automatic weapons should be strengthened. Gore at the time was gearing up for the ’00 race, and, taking early aim at his eventual opponent, he often mentioned during 1999 that George W. Bush, as governor of Texas, had done nothing to curb gun purchases in his state; on the contrary, Bush had signed a law making it easier for Texans to carry concealed weapons.

But after Gore won the nomination, and election day drew near, he barely said a word about gun control, aside from mentioning that maybe a photo ID would be a good idea at the time of purchase. Nor did he take on Bush when the GOP candidate opined on guns in his inimitable style. (I was at a March 2000 debate, in Los Angeles, when Bush sought to explain why he opposed any federal requirement that guns be equipped with trigger locks: “I don’t mind trigger locks being sold, but the question is, are we going to have ‘trigger-lock police’ knocking on people’s doors and saying, ‘show me your trigger locks’?”)

Gore’s people muted the gun issue when it became clear, during the final weeks of the campaign, that he needed to boost his appeal to male gun owners in key swing states. I spent the closing days of the race in one of those states, Michigan, and it was clear that, fairly or not, a lot of the guys viewed any gun restrictions as akin to gun confiscation. One office worker, Joe Overton, said to me, “In this state, we mobilize more people on the first day of hunting than saw hitting the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. My brother and sister are hunters, and they think a photo ID is like getting tattooed.”

In the end, Gore managed to win Michigan – as well as Pennsylvania, another big gun state. But, more significantly, Gore lost Tennessee (his home state), Arkansas (Clinton’s state), and West Virginia (which had been a solid Democratic state for decades). If he had prevailed in just one of those three states, he would have won the election. Democrats have since concluded that those three losses were partly attributable to his image as a gun-curber. The national exit polls provided broader evidence: nearly half the voters in 2000 were gun owners – and they broke for Bush, by 61 to 36 percent.

Flash forward to 2004. That year, the Republican Congress allowed the ’94 weapons-assault ban law to expire – and only a handful of Democrats said a word about it. The new Democratic strategy (which has been working, albeit slowly) is to broaden the party’s appeal in southern and western states by embracing gun rights. A new breed of “macho” Democrats, such as Virginia Sen. James Webb, has joined the ranks. And at least one Democratic presidential candidate, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, considers himself the gun owner’s friend.

We don’t yet know whether tight gun laws would have conclusively prevented the Virginia Tech massacre. But since we are now entering yet another broad national debate about the root causes of such tragedies, the traditional Democratic perspective will be conspicuous by its absence (the gun-control groups can’t do it alone).

Already, religious conservatives are filling my in-box with denunciations of our cultural decadence, and of the need to “turn to God” as a hedge against the “evil” that stalks us. A pro-gun group, Gun Owners of America, has emailed to say that the Virginia Tech massacre could have been prevented if only the Virginia legislature hadn’t killed a bill that would have allowed teachers and students to carry concealed guns (“Isn’t it interesting that Utah and Oregon are the only two states that allows faculty to carry guns on campus. And isn’t it interesting that you haven’t read about any school or university shootings in Utah or Oregon?”) Meanwhile, the media watchdogs are already on cable TV, denouncing video games and Quentin Tarantino (we don’t yet know whether the Virginia Tech shooter played video games or watched movies by Quentin Tarantino).

So, since this is destined to be the national conversation for the next few days, it would seem appropriate, at the least, that high-powered Democratic arguments about the easy availability of weaponry should be part of the mix.