The Death of Gun Control

Why the recall of two Colorado legislators is a major setback for gun-safety advocates nationally

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

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.

"We had two electoral cycles, 2004 and 2006, where we reelected every lawmaker who voted our way," Solomon told me. "Some of these people were not easy to reelect -- alcoholism, ethics issues, bad votes. Some didn't collect enough signatures [to get on the ballot] and had to run write-in campaigns. We were determined to reelect every single one. Some of those people are now in prison, but we got them reelected." And Massachusetts politicians learned that if you voted for gay marriage, you would have a powerful friend and ally.

When it comes to gun control, politicians have feared the NRA for decades. They've seen Democrats lose at every level, from president on down, in part because of the gun issue, and they saw their party make a comeback, particularly out west, when it started embracing gun rights instead.

The supposedly new-and-improved gun-control lobby was convinced that conventional wisdom was out of date. It set out to convince politicians that the landscape had changed. It had a less inflammatory message and more modest goals than the would-be gun-prohibitionists of the 1980s and '90s. It had a public that seemed galvanized by the shootings in Tucson and Aurora and Newtown, and polling data that seemed to show voters overwhelmingly supportive of its aims. The NRA's message and tactics, by contrast, seemed laughably antique and tone deaf. A vote for gun control, advocates claimed, wasn't just a safe vote; it was the only safe vote. Senators who voted against the federal gun-control bill were punished with ad campaigns and saw their approval ratings dip. For the first time, the terrible calculus of politics seemed to be on gun-control advocates' side.

But there was still one thing they needed to prove. They needed to prove that they could protect the lawmakers whom they coaxed out on a limb. On Tuesday, they failed that test. Future lawmakers facing similar votes aren't going to care about the particulars; they're going to look at John Morse and Angela Giron and think, That's going to be me. No thanks.

Among gun-control campaigners, recriminations are flying behind the scenes about the strategic missteps that allowed Tuesday's recalls to slip away. But many are convinced that the damage will be limited. Matt Bennett, a veteran gun-policy strategist and researcher now with the center-left think tank Third Way, pointed me to a poll that showed that even recall supporters still favored gun background checks; it was Colorado's ban on high-capacity magazines they revolted against.

But panicky lawmakers are unlikely to make such a fine distinction. All they'll see is a fight between Bloomberg's lofty promises and the creaky old tactics of the NRA, and the NRA won.