Ever since Al Gore's defeat in 2000, it has become hardened conventional wisdom among Democrats that gun control is a losing issue for the party. And there's no question that public opinion since 2000 has tilted toward greater skepticism of restrictions on gun ownership.
But those basic facts omit some other factors relevant to the debate. One is that the key elements of the Democratic coalition, though wavering somewhat since 2000, still preponderantly prioritize restrictions on gun ownership over protecting the rights of gun owners. The other is that support for gun control actually increased during the 1990s, when President Clinton waged and won two pitched battles with the National Rifle Association, and has declined in this decade, when no president (and virtually no congressional leader) has made a case to the public for gun restrictions.
Results from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center offer a good long-term gauge of the change and stability in attitudes toward regulating access to guns. For two decades, Pew has asked a fundamental question: "What do you think is more important: to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership?" In 1993, 57 percent of adults said it was more important to control gun ownership while only 34 percent said it was more important to protect gun rights.
Those attitudes remained largely stable through the 1990s, when Clinton drove through Congress two major gun-control initiatives: the Brady Bill in 1993, which required a waiting period for handgun purchases, and a ban on assault weapons in 1994. After the 1999 Columbine high school massacre in Littleton, Colo., (not far from Friday's shooting in Aurora, another blue-collar Denver suburb), Clinton failed in an effort to pass further limits on purchases at gun shows. But as Clinton completed his term in 2000, Pew polling still showed that a solid majority of Americans placed greater priority on restricting gun ownership than protecting gun rights (with 57 percent picking the gun control side in one 2000 survey and 66 percent in another).
Despite those overall attitudes, after George W. Bush defeated Gore in 2000, largely by routing him in rural areas and among blue-collar whites, many if not most Democratic strategists concluded that gun control was a losing issue for the party. No less a political authority than Clinton himself once told me he believed Gore lost the election in states where the AFL-CIO lacked the ground presence to neutralize the NRA campaign against Gore among blue-collar whites.
Coming after a similar rural/blue-collar uprising keyed the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 (following the passage of Clinton's two big gun-control initiatives), the 2000 election solidified the attitude among Democrats that the intensity on the gun-control issue tilted overwhelmingly toward the conservative side — that those opposed to gun control were much more likely to vote on the issue than those who supported it. The counterpoint argument from gun-control advocates, that the issue was contributing to the Democratic advance in white-collar suburbs along the East and West Coasts at both the presidential and congressional level, found little audience in the party after 2000.
Even so, most Americans continued to place a higher priority on controlling gun ownership than protecting gun rights in Pew polling through the George W. Bush years (when Congress, with Bush's support, allowed Clinton's assault-weapon ban to lapse). It was only around the time of President Obama's election that the lines in Pew's polling converged and then crossed: In the most recent survey that asked the question (April 2012), 49 percent of adults said it was most important to protect gun rights, compared with 45 percent who placed the higher priority on controlling gun ownership.
The polling data doesn't fully explain why attitudes toward guns have shifted so far toward the conservative side in the Obama years. From the outset, he has almost never discussed the subject; after the shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, Obama promised to lead a national conversation about guns, but he has been almost completely AWOL since. Even after the Aurora massacre, his first comments never raised the issue.
But one clue may be that attitudes toward gun control, while cooling among all key groups in the electorate, have shifted most dramatically among the portions of the white electorate expressing the broadest unease about Obama — particularly his vision of a more expansive role for Washington across an array of issues. Figures provided by Michael Dimock, Pew's associate research director, show that the biggest shifts toward opposition to gun control have come among the same blue-collar whites who have displayed the greatest alienation to Obama across the board. From 2000 to 2008, the share of noncollege white men who prioritized gun rights over gun control soared from 55 percent to 73 percent; noncollege white women moved comparably, shifting from 32 percent emphasizing gun rights to 52 percent.
"Whether related to the economy or the uncertainty that's creating for people or the arrival of a president that certain groups have felt uncomfortable with from day one, this issue has really has come to symbolize something powerful for these voters," says Dimock.
The change was somewhat more restrained among college-educated white men: The share of them prioritizing gun ownership increased from 46 percent to 59 percent. Among college-educated white women, the most Democratic-leaning component of the white electorate, support for gun rights increased 11 percentage points; among all minority adults, it rose a relatively modest 9 percentage points over the period.
But even after those changes, those key pillars of the modern Democratic coalition still lean heavily toward gun control: In the April 2012 Pew survey, 61 percent of both college-educated white women and all nonwhite adults said it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect gun rights. Young people, another pillar of the modern Democratic coalition, do not tilt as overwhelmingly toward the gun-control side, but are still more supportive than older generations.
What this means is that gun control is now overwhelmingly unpopular among the portions of the white electorate Obama is least likely to win anyway — and maintains solid majority support among the Americans most likely to actually vote for him. For individual Democratic senators or House members representing rural or heavily blue-collar states, the equation may look very different. But at the national level, Obama's reluctance to address gun control means he is failing to articulate what remains a strong preference within his coalition. Gun control, in fact, remains a majority position with the same groups generally most enthusiastic about Obama's recent embrace of gay marriage, free access to contraception in health insurance, and an administration version of the Dream Act for young illegal immigrants. It's also possible that if Obama or other leading Democrats made a more forceful case for gun control, support for it in Obama's coalition would rise further, back toward its levels when Clinton was articulating the argument for limits.
If Obama or other leading Democrats identified more strongly with the gun-control cause, there would undoubtedly be political costs: Such an emphasis would sharpen the cultural, class, and regional divides that already define American politics. It could help the president in places like Northern Virginia or the Denver and Philadelphia suburbs (all places where economic discontent threatens to erode his decisive 2008 support), and hurt him in more rural areas of the same states. But it's a myth that there is no longer any audience for gun control: it is, in fact, the same audience that the president is pursuing with almost everything else he does.