The Gun Debate Is Starting to Divide Democrats

The Gun Debate Is Starting to Divide Democrats

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

SourceChip Somodevilla/Getty

Why you should care

Because the Republican Party isn’t the only one divided on gun control. 

Tighten background checks. Ban the so-called bump stocks that were used in last year’s Las Vegas massacre. Erect new hurdles to keep guns out of the hands of those diagnosed with mental illnesses. Reinstate the assault weapons ban. For many Democrats, these demands are the need of the hour, with the deadly Parkland, Florida, high school shooting that claimed 17 lives the latest trigger. But the moves are unsettling to rural and purple-state Democrats who will face tight elections in November.

A raging debate on gun control is splitting the Democratic Party, away from the attention drawn by more controversial comments — and about-turns — of many Republican Party leaders. Moderate, even conservative, members of the Democratic Party fear their leaders risk alienating key independent voters by tacking too far to the left on the issues ahead of the November elections. Case in point: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s decision to sign on to the bill to ban assault weapons for the first time since the last one lapsed.

The debate isn’t just taking place inside the Capitol. It’s on display in numerous Democratic primaries across the nation as well. The author of the 1994 assault weapons ban, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), was called out on the issue by her likely challenger, California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, after she said the ban wouldn’t have prevented the bloodshed in Las Vegas. On February 27, guns took center stage in the Democratic Ohio gubernatorial primary contest when former Rep. Dennis Kucinich labeled his rival, Richard Cordray, who recently stepped down as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Rifle Association’s “boy.”

We as a party just got to make sure we don’t go to the extreme.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

It’s playing out in the contest for New Jersey’s open 2nd District House seat, where conservative Democrat and darling of the NRA Jeff Van Drew is getting beat up by some angry voters over guns. And after the Vegas shooting, a regional press secretary at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) asked members of Congress from the Northeast to take a cue from the NRA and focus on offering “thoughts/prayers” while avoiding any talk of gun control.

“We as a party just got to make sure we don’t go to the extreme,” says Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). “We cannot alienate voters that we need to win the 2018 [midterms]. I’m talking about those districts that we need to win back.”

Democrats like Cuellar are trying to pull their party to the center. When asked if he knew his NRA score, Cuellar smiles and doesn’t hesitate to say “A.” Aggressive support for so-called Blue Dog Democrats like him helped the party win back the House in 2006. Still, his pro-gun stance doesn’t mean he doesn’t want changes to some gun laws. “I wish the NRA would be a little bit more flexible for simple background checks — something that they used to support; now they don’t,” Cuellar says. But he fears that going beyond background checks could come back to haunt the party.

That’s not how many others see it. “Anybody who’s recommending that Democrats stay quiet after these mass shootings is not doing the anti–gun violence movement a service,” says Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), accusing the NRA of trying to intimidate those speaking out for policy changes, and adding that “no Democrat” should worry. But what about the regional press secretary, an officeholder within the DCCC? Doesn’t that suggest a deeper concern within the party cadre? “I think it was one staffer at the DCCC,” says Murphy.

An outspoken advocate for gun control since 20 6-year-olds were gunned down in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in his state, Murphy on February 28 huddled with survivors of recent mass shootings. His strategy is just the opposite of Cuellar’s: to make guns a central issue in this year’s midterm elections.

“This is an issue that Democrats can win on in every single state, in every single district,” Murphy says. “Not every Democrat is going to run on the same set of gun violence issues, but every Democrat should be running on background checks, and every Republican that’s in a swing district that has an A+ rating from the NRA is going to be in a lot of trouble this fall.”

Democratic leaders had hoped to focus this year’s elections around the economy, along with the allegations of corruption and collusion hanging over the Trump administration. But now, the internal party debate between moderate, rural Democrats and their more urban, suburban colleagues is threatening to upend those plans.

“We tend to have that division,” says Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.). “I’ve seen it, being here 25 years. After the assault weapons ban in 1994, we had a number of members lose their elections, and they were perceived as moderate Blue Dogs. And a lot was attributed to the assault weapons ban as the reason for that.”

Even if the party has lost seats in the past on the issue, Hastings thinks it’s time for the moderates in his party to take a step to their left on guns. He says the politics of guns has forever changed since the Florida high school students aggressively took on the issue and the powerful NRA.

“I don’t think we should shy away from what is needed when it comes to the survival of our children,” Hastings says. “I think that the only way you can defeat it is the way that these children are going about it, and that is to address it in a meaningful kind of way.” But while the high school students want to build a long-term movement, the Democratic Party wants to win this year. It’s still deciding which way to aim.

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