Ever since the Senate voted down gun-control legislation in April, some advocates have remained convinced there was still hope. As of Tuesday, that hope is officially dead.
On Tuesday, two Colorado state senators, both Democrats, were recalled by voters for their votes in favor of gun control. Gun-rights advocates instigated the recall drives; the National Rifle Association spent $360,000, sending mailers and airing television ads calling the lawmakers "too extreme for Colorado." Gun-control proponents, buoyed by donations from New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, outspent their opponents five to one. But the NRA turned the money against the lawmakers, painting them as pawns of fancy-pants out-of-state liberal interests. And the NRA won.
Democrats and gun-control advocates have come up with a number of rosy rationalizations to minimize the loss. Gun-rights campaigners failed to collect enough signatures to initiate two other recalls, they point out, so the victory was really mixed. The gun-control laws passed by the Colorado legislature remain in place, and Democrats retain control of both houses. Tuesday's recall was a low-turnout election with procedural irregularities that made it harder for people to vote. Both lawmakers represented tough districts, particularly Senator Angela Giron, whose district was Democratic but culturally conservative; she lost by 12 points, while state Senate President John Morse lost by fewer than 400 votes.
All those things are true. And they don't matter.
Here's what matters for the future of gun control: Advocates needed to send a signal that politicians could vote for gun control without fear of ending their careers. Instead, they sent the opposite message. Now risk-averse pols, already all too aware of the culture-war baggage the gun issue has historically carried, will have no incentive to put their political futures in jeopardy by proposing or supporting gun-control legislation. Indeed, it doesn't seem far-fetched to think that gun control might go back into the policy deep-freeze where Democrats had it stowed for most of the last 10 years.
Politicians, to be obvious about it, value survival. They're not inclined to take stands on issues that put them at odds with their constituents, and they don't like to wade into divisive debates that rile people up but don't win them votes. The gay-marriage campaigners I wrote about last year understood this extremely well. They spent years developing the credibility to assure politicians that if they voted in favor of gay marriage, advocates would have their back in elections. Marc Solomon, now the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, ran campaigns for MassEquality a decade ago. The Massachusetts supreme court had just legalized gay marriage, and lawmakers wanted to amend the state constitution to overturn the decision. MassEquality had to convince 75 percent of the legislature, over the course of two legislative sessions, to oppose putting the amendment on the ballot. Only about 25 percent were with him at the beginning. But MassEquality fought to reelect every lawmaker that took its side -- in the face of a major statewide Republican campaign backed by then-Governor Mitt Romney.