The 2012 elections – from president on down – could be dominated by GunVoters. Though there has been no serious push for federal gun control in recent years, there is a strong perception among gun owners that new restrictions are lying in wait just over the horizon if Barack Obama and his Democratic colleagues are returned to power in this year's election. GunVoters are like a hornets' hive: There are always some guards flying around, making noise, warning anyone who gets too close. Occasionally, a larger contingent will come out to chase off a perceived threat, but the masses only react when someone smacks the hive with a stick. When that happens, whoever is holding the stick is in serious trouble.
The analogy has played out in elections over the past 20 years. In 1992, George H.W. Bush was assumed to be a shoo-in following the successful action in Iraq. Nonetheless, Bush had poked at the hive with import restrictions on certain military-looking firearms (an executive order that stands to this day) and had angrily withdrawn his membership in the NRA over NRA executive Wayne LaPierre's (quite justifiable) characterization of a group of ATF agents as "jack-booted thugs." Republican political strategist Lee Atwater was asked how walking away from the gun-rights issue might impact the president's re-election plans, Atwater shrugged off the question with the comment, "Where else are they (GunVoters) going to go?" He, and Bush, found out that November when some GunVoters went with Ross Perot, a few went to Bill Clinton, and a whole lot simply went hunting, declining to participate in the process at all. Between the loss of GunVoter support and Bush's infamously broken "Read my lips – no new taxes" pledge, Bush the elder lost the election to former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton had served as a relatively conservative Democrat governor, but ran for president as a far-left liberal and maintained that course during his first two years as president. While most of the liberal agenda Clinton tried to bully through Congress was stymied, he managed to get two major gun control laws passed: the Brady Bill, mandating a five-day waiting period and background checks on handgun purchasers, and, in September 1994, an omnibus crime bill that included a ban on the sale of all new, so-called "assault weapons" and magazines with a capacity of over 10 rounds.
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The Brady Bill stirred up the hornets' nest, but its impact was mitigated by inclusion of an NRA-endorsed provision that would do away with the waiting period and shift the background checks to an "instant" system by 1998. The "assault weapons" ban was a different story. The bill's backers had added a sunset clause to the final bill as a sweetener, but no one realistically expected the law to expire. With the Clinton gun ban, the hornets' nest had been smacked like a piñata, and GunVoters were in a frenzy. The fact that the vote came just a few weeks before the November mid-term elections made it all the worse for politicians who voted for the ban. The key voter in the 1994 election was the "Angry White Male."
White or not, GunVoter fury over the "assault weapons" ban was aimed squarely at Democrats, even though a number of Republicans had voted for the ban. Both the House and Senate were flooded with a tide of Republicans – many of them Washington virgins – who swept in with a mandate to stop Clinton's leftward advances. Clinton stole their thunder by veering to the middle and laying claim to a good part of their agenda. Clinton's finesse allowed him to be re-elected and to be seen as one of the most effective and successful presidents in history, despite his zipper problems.
Since 1994, Democrats have treated gun control as an electrified third rail of politics. They have done so on the advice of the best and highest-profile political analyst in the country, Bill Clinton. The Jan. 14, 1995, Cleveland Plain Dealer carried a front-page headline, "Clinton Blames Losses on NRA." Since 1994, only politicians in the safest of anti-rights districts have dared to proclaim support for gun control proposals, and even those have tended to obfuscate their position with proclamations of respect for the Second Amendment. The exception that proved the rule was Al Gore who in 2000 slipped and made some anti-rights statements. That mistake cost him his home state of Tennessee and probably the presidency.
After that, Democratic strategists clamped down on the gun issue. Democratic candidates now deliver carefully worded endorsements of the Second Amendment and avoid expressing support for any specific gun control provision their Republican opponent hasn't already endorsed.
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These days, Democratic leaders in Congress allow gun rights bills to come to the floor at opportune times and in such a way that their members from pro-rights districts can record a "pro-gun" vote to show off to the GunVoters back home. Even Chuck Schumer and Hillary have mouthed support for the Second Amendment, and who can forget John Kerry's ridiculous goose hunt? All of it is carefully choreographed to mollify GunVoters and send them back into the hive and the hunting fields to keep them from being a major factor in elections.
That strategy has been working, but this year, with Fast and Furious boiling under the surface, and fears of potential gun bans around the corner, GunVoters are not lying dormant. An unlikely ally has been found in the form of the Brady Bunch. Snubbed by their traditional allies, the gun prohibition group has pressed candidates to tell voters what they're going to do about gun violence. Rights activists like me have joined the chorus because we know that candidates talking about gun control almost always helps those that are pro-rights and hurts those that are anti-rights. That effort bore fruit during the second presidential debate when Mitt Romney reiterated his opposition to any new gun control laws and Barack Obama declared his desire to see re-enactment of the "assault weapons" ban and suggested targeting "cheap handguns" as a solution to Chicago's murder problem.
I don't anticipate raging swarms of GunVoters this year like we saw in 1994, but I think enough gun owners and supporters of liberty have been awakened to make a difference in key states like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and North Carolina. We'll know next week whether that will be enough to turn the tide in the race for the White House and, perhaps more importantly, control of the U.S. Senate.
Right now, GunVoters have the potential to swing this election to the Republicans. While I try to avoid being partisan, a comparison of the two parties' platforms says Lee Atwater was right; this year at least, GunVoters simply can't afford to go anywhere else.
[Correction, Nov. 6, 2012: George H.W. Bush did not resign from the NRA until 1995, after he was out of office. NRA withheld its endorsement in 1992 because of Bush's Executive Order blocking imports of certain types of firearms and firearm parts. Note: The term jack-booted thugs in reference to the ATF was coined by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., during debate on the floor of the U.S. House. -- JAK]