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Democrats aren't afraid of gun control anymore

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Let's just state the obvious: This week's Democratic sit-in at the US House of Representatives is unlikely to lead to an immediate substantive change in the nation's gun laws. But it suggested an important shift in the political environment. By sitting down, Democrats showed they are willing to stand up on an issue they've been terrified to touch.

The sit-in was unusual in a number of ways. It was, essentially, a filibuster in the House, where filibusters tend not to happen (although they did in the 19th century, as Greg Koger notes). And it's rare — although not unheard of, as Matthew Green argues — for the minority party to seek to control of the floor through protest.

But perhaps the most notable aspect of this was national Democrats taking a very vocal stance in favor of some form of gun regulation. As David Karol has demonstrated, gun control is one of those rare issues that had actually experienced a form of depolarization. In the 1980s and '90s, the major parties regularly fought each other over guns, and Democrats achieved substantial gun restrictions when they briefly held unified control of the government in the early 1990s.

But Republicans continued to push to undermine those laws in the following years, while Democrats largely stopped fighting back. By the time of the 2000 election, there seemed to be a general recognition among Democrats that they were losing electorally on the issue; Republicans had successfully convinced enough voters that Democrats were coming to take their guns, regardless of the actual substance of any given piece of legislation.

In an era of declining violent crime, Democrats came to believe that they couldn't win on the gun issue, and they largely stopped talking about it. And the National Rifle Association and other pro–gun rights groups maintained a much stronger role in the Republican Party's nomination politics than gun control groups ever did in the Democrats'. It's very hard to get nominated as a pro–gun control Republican, while anti–gun control Democrats get nominated pretty regularly.

But the rash of high-publicity mass shootings in recent years seems to have shifted Democrats' calculations. Democrats in a number of states have been pressing for gun control legislation. And the recent tragedy in Orlando seems to have pushed House Democrats into action.

It's not, of course, just that Democrats feel that this is one shooting too many. It's that they see this as a winning issue for them, for several reasons. For one, even if tying gun restrictions to a no-fly list only compounds a civil liberties nightmare, it obviously polls well, and it's difficult for opponents to mount a defense for allowing terror suspects access to weapons.

For another, the Republicans are in a tough spot right now and are facing the possibility of a very bad election year. The House minority party has few powers, but one of them is to occasionally make the majority look bad. The majority is pushing an unpopular position in an election year, and Democrats are drawing attention to it. (Having civil rights movement veteran Rep. John Lewis lead the sit-in, essentially daring Speaker Paul Ryan to forcibly remove him, is a nice touch.)

This is unlikely to become a major issue in the election. For the most part, Republican voters were already convinced Democrats were coming to take their guns anyway. But this does have the effect of energizing gun control activists on the left. House Democrats' activities this week are a form of campaign promise, one that gun control advocates will be demanding action on should Democrats gain partial or full control of the federal government in November.

The policies haven't changed — not yet, anyway — but the politics have, and Democrats elected this year will have an important item on their agenda that hasn't been there in years.

This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system. See more Mischiefs of Faction posts here.

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