On Wednesday, President Obama unveiled new measures in response to the Dec. 14 gun massacre in Newtown, Conn.,, that left 20 school children and seven adults dead. The measures range from expanded background checks for gun purchases to improved access to mental health care.
On the merits, all are useful policies. But they amount to only minor changes in the law and won’t seriously restrict access to firearms. What’s sure to upset the millions of Americans who want stricter laws is that the modesty of these initiatives doesn’t nearly reflect the national outrage that followed the tragedy. Even some of the president’s more significant proposals, such as renewing the assault-weapons ban, which 58 percent of Americans favored in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, lack the support of key members of his own party. On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada all but dismissed the idea outright. “Is it something that can pass the Senate? Maybe,” Reid told an interviewer. “Is it something that can pass the House? I doubt it.”
In the near term, then, advocates of gun control will likely be disappointed. But their prospects look much better further on, because the composition of the Democratic electorate is changing in ways that make it more willing to impose restrictions.
To put this change in context, it helps to understand why gun laws became so difficult to pass and even to maintain in the first place.
In 1994, President Clinton signed a law banning the manufacture of certain assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, a move not without controversy. But because the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, and the ban was part of a larger crime bill that included tougher sentences and a measure to hire 100,000 police officers, it overcame the opposition of the National Rifle Association and other gun groups.
Later that year, Republicans carried both the House and the Senate for the first time in decades. On their own, the new gun laws did not bring this disaster on the Democrats. But guns became an important psychological component of Democrats’ attempts to explain their loss.
Most concluded that the party had broken a kind of cultural faith with the blue-collar, rural white male voters who were traditionally an important part of the Democratic base. Those fears deepened after Al Gore’s loss in 2000.
Democrats weren’t the only ones who ran into trouble with gun laws. In 2004, when George W. Bush tried to renew the assault-weapons ban, congressional Republicans blocked him. After this, gun control disappeared from the national agenda.
As recently as a few months ago, neither party wanted to touch it.
Asked about guns during an October presidential debate, Obama delivered a paean to the Second Amendment indistinguishable from Mitt Romney’s.
But the elite political consensus to avoid gun control never reflected the actual views of Americans as a whole, a significant portion of whom consistently favored tougher laws. The Newtown massacre finally broke this stasis.
For an odd reason, the 2012 election should embolden Democrats. Even after the party fell silent on guns, white males continued to abandon it in droves, with Obama carrying a historically low 35 percent of them. But he still won the election, which underscores how much less integral a part of the Democratic coalition they have become.
They’ve been replaced by what the journalist Ron Brownstein has dubbed “the coalition of the ascendant”: minorities, immigrants, and white-collar professionals (especially women), all of whom are increasing as a share of the electorate. Although the ABC News/Washington Post poll shows white working-class men continuing to oppose a ban on assault weapons (by a margin of 55 percent to 43 percent), the groups that reelected Obama strongly support one: minorities by 63 percent to 33 percent and professional white women by 72 percent to 25 percent.
These views are already shaping the policies of the next generation of Democratic leaders. In fact, much like same-sex marriage, gun control is emerging as a litmus test for 2016 presidential hopefuls.
On Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law broadening the state’s ban on assault weapons. Also this week, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley revealed plans to pursue a similar ban, along with strict licensing requirements for gun owners that would include background checks, gun-safety courses, and — most controversially — a fingerprint registry.
This will not satisfy the many people demanding a swift response to the Newtown massacre. But unfortunately Washington works slowly, when it works at all. And at least now the course has been set, and the taboo on gun control lifted.
Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.