This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
The highly symbolic first action President Bush took after he came out of the closet this week and explicitly acknowledged that he is, in fact, a candidate for high office, was to support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In so doing, he jumped into a fiery, headlining new front in the long-running culture war that Republicans just love to wage.
As it happens, the Senate is battling that culture clash on another front but this scrap won't muster many headlines. The issue is gun control. You may think that is a law enforcement issue not a sociology topic. It is, in part. But when it comes to voting behavior, gun control is the Gettysburg of the culture wars. Except for one thing: the Democrats have already retreated.
Democrats have essentially shelved a long commitment to stricter gun control for two political reasons. Gun control puts them on the "wrong" side of the culture war, the side where they don't get votes from the NASCAR dads they covet. They admit to this. It is also the case that gun crime and gun violence hits poor, non-white urban areas especially hard, and tending to that constituency is not something high on the "how to get elected" manual for Democrats nationally. They don't like to admit that.
The specific issue before the Senate is The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (naming bills is such an art). The bill, passed by the House last year, would shield gun makers, dealers, wholesalers, and even trade associations from civil lawsuits unless they had sold or distributed defective weapons or broken specific criminal laws.
This is an important piece of legislation because lawsuits brought by victims of gun violence and by municipalities, have become perhaps the most effective tactic in pushing for increased gun control and regulation, especially as advocates lose more and more battles in legislatures. These lawsuits have targeted specific gun dealers, attempted to compensate for a lack of enforcement of gun laws, and pushed for increased gun safety such as trigger locks and childproofing.
There are around two-dozen major cases in the courts now; the most famous is the case against Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Washington, where snipers Lee Malvo and John Muhammad got their Bushmaster rifle. The gun liability bill would squelch the cases.
The NRA and other gun-rights groups say these are "frivolous" lawsuits, but not so frivolous that legislating them out of existence isn't at the top of gun lobby's agenda. One dumb jury verdict, say the gun-rights advocates, and the entire U.S. gun-manufacturing sector will be wiped out. If that happened, Americans wouldn't be able to defend themselves from each other and from foreign aggressors. Anarchy and tyranny to follow.
Only 22 Senators voted to stop the bill from coming to the floor. Minority Leader Tom Daschle supports it. There is no broad opposition from Democrats.
The only hope opponents have is to attach two "killer" amendments to the bill that would scuttle the whole bill; one would extend the 10 year-old ban on certain assault weapons that is set to expire later this year, another to end a loophole for gun sales at shows. The gun lobby hates these measures. Ending the assault weapons ban is the other golden ring for the gun lobby. The President supports extending the assault weapons ban and ending the gun show loophole, though he hasn't done anything to bring them into law.
So, unless a small, but wily group of Senate Democrats pulls a rabbit out of a hat, the gun lobby is about to prove, as Dorothy Gale sang, that dreams "really do come true." Other industries -- carmakers, aviation, pharmaceuticals, brewers, cigarette manufacturers, chemical companies -- can only dream about getting the kind of legal immunity Congress is about to bestow on the gun industry.
The Democrats haven't retreated because they've changed their minds on policy. They haven't quit the fight because, as they would have us think, the nefarious gun lobby has grown so strong; the gun lobby has been zealous, skilled and loaded with money and grassroots support for decades. No, Democrats are convinced that gun control is a critical "wedge" issue -- an issue that could wedge them from their jobs.
It is a pillar of faith among Democratic strategists that being labeled the anti-gun rights party has cost them numerous congressional seats in rural areas over the years. They are convinced Al Gore's tepid pot shots at the gun lobby in 2000 cost him rural states where the vote was close, like West Virginia, New Hampshire, Missouri, Nevada, Arkansas and even home, sweet home, Tennessee.
Roll Call magazine recently obtained a memo instructing Democrats on how to finesse the gun issue. It observed that the states Bush won in 2000 had an average gun ownership rate of 53 percent, compared to 39 percent in the states won by Gore. The memo said 47 percent of households in the country have guns, 54 percent of union household have guns. The advice: pose as "Second Amendment Democrats" committed to gun rights and sensible, moderate gun laws. Good luck.
Democrats believe many voters in non-rich areas who "should" be for them based on economic self-interest are against them because of guns and, to a lesser degree, other culture war issues and icons: gay rights and same-sex marriage, marriage, school prayer, abortion, patriotism, flag-burning, confronting violence and sexual content in popular entertainment. There is a cottage industry devoted to giving Democrats advice on how to fix this and, perhaps, paper over a cultural and social divide that really does exist. Bill Clinton is their poster boy.
But the lesson Democrats seem to have learned on gun control is 'hold your fire.' Retreat. Give it up.
The problem is gun violence and gun crime remains a huge national problem, a problem measured by corpses. That problem is most acute in cities, especially in poor, non-white areas where voter turnout is low and campaign contributions nonexistent. Gun crime becomes a headline issue when it spills into white, non-poor places: Columbine or the Washington-area sniper murders.
The Democratic politicians worrying most about gun control aren't the guys trying to win Arkansas' electoral votes or swing the Senate back to the Dems. It's the big city mayors and police chiefs. For example, the point man in the fight against the gun liability bill is the Los Angeles Police Chief, William Bratton. And the mayors of Chicago, Gary, Los Angeles and New York (three D's, 1 R), wrote a vehement op-ed piece in The New York Times opposing the bill.
The problems of the urban ghetto are not a high-profile issue for Democrats in the presidential race and haven't been since the times of LBJ and RFK. Indeed, "ghetto" is a word that is just about politically incorrect. When John Edwards and John Kerry talk about two Americas, unemployment and poverty, you have the overwhelming sense that they're talking about the NASCAR Dad who lost a $55,000 factory job, not a fourth-generation single mother in the South Bronx who has never had a job.
The classic Republic wedge issue play uses a national controversy, generally one that has only a trivial federal legislative relevance, to make Democrats look like elitist prigs in the eyes of voters who aren't in the traditional Republican areas of the wealth ladder. With gun control, too many Democrats have been wedged away from their principles.
Update: On March 2, Senate Republicans scrapped the whole gun liability bill after Democrats and a handful of Republicans did amend it to extend the assault weapons ban and require background checks on all buyers at private gun shows.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.
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By Dick Meyer