Gun control lobby, shot down in a blaze of glory

The Atlantic examines the results of the Colorado recall where two anti-gun senators were given the arse by voters.

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.?

Ouch, the left-wing loves to cling to the belief that money can buy you elections…well in Colorado the anti-gun lobby outspent the NRA 5 to 1…and lost.

All the disaster management that is going on can’t paper over the rather obvious flaws in their campaign. They lost and ceded advantage to the NRA.

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.

Make a politician squeamish about their future and they find reverse gear really very quickly. Politicians in the US have feared the NRA for decades. They fear them because they regularly knock over their ratbag opponents.

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.

Few politicians even know how courage is spelled let alone find the word in the dictionary.

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.

Never go against the NRA.