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The Problem With Gun Control Politics


I guess I’m supposed to be outraged that a handful of red-state Senate Democrats cast meaningless votes against the background check bill instead of meaningless votes in favor of it.  But I’m not really, for these reasons:

Being in a position like that requires choices. You’re not going to win reelection in Arkansas by compiling a Chuck Schumer–esque voting record. You need to pick your battles. Red state Democrats need to cast votes against their party sometimes, or else they’ll be replaced by somebody who will vote against it all the time. That is a moral argument, and while it can be taken too far, the Senators in question are not taking a terribly unreasonable stance. As Politico reports, one Senator told the administration, “Guns, gays and immigration — it’s too much. I can be with you on one or two of them, but not all three.””

If you’re picking your battles, background checks are as good an issue as any to lay down. For one thing, as I’ve suggested, guns loom disproportionately large in the political world of red state Democrats. Guns are the way they signal home state cultural affinity, giving themselves a chance to get their economic message heard. Their A rating from the National Rifle Association is powerful shorthand. And yes, the NRA is crazy and partisan, and was opposing a bill it used to support and that most Republicans support. But none of those facts overcomes the blunt reality of the A rating’s political value.

What’s more, this particular gun vote was an especially good time for Democrats to defect. None of them cast the deciding vote; it fell six votes shy of defeating a filibuster. The bill was already a compromise of a compromise, something that would have stopped a tiny fraction of gun crimes. Even if it passed the Senate, it faced steep odds of passing the House, where it probably would have died, been weakened further, or even turned into a law that weakened existing gun laws.

The last point is particularly important. The fact that the votes were meaningless two ways — not only because they wouldn’t have been enough to break a filibuster but because the legislation was DOA in the House — makes this an easy call; I really don’t understand the point of putting Senate seats at risk in exchange for absolutely nothing.

The more interesting question is whether Reid and Obama should have pulled out all the stops in a hypothetical alternative in which Democrats still controlled the House and had the votes to break a filibuster. In the case of something like the PPACA, if some red-state Democrats have to give up their seats the sacrifices have to be made; there’s no point in keeping the seats blue if you’re never going to do anything. But the effects of the gun control legislation being considered here were likely to be so trivial that it’s not obvious that risking red-state Democratic seats would be worth it. But in that scenario, there’s at least a debate to be had. When the benefits of voting against your district are “none,” though, the choice is pretty easy.

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