Has the push for an assault-weapons ban doomed gun control in the Senate?

A compelling case made by Adam Winkler, although I think he’s selling the Dems short both on long-term strategy and on the post-election politics of this issue.

Banning the sale of assault weapons was a bad idea from the start. These guns may be scary looking, but they are rarely used in criminal activity. While involved in a handful of high-profile mass shootings, including in Newtown, Connecticut, and Aurora, Colorado, these weapons aren’t a significant contributor to gun violence overall. Only a fraction of gun-related homicides every year are attributed to rifles of any kind; assault rifles make up a fraction of a fraction. And anyone looking to do maximum damage, like a deranged mass killer, can easily find other guns just as deadly. So even if the assault-weapons ban were enacted, it would not have a major impact on America’s daily death toll from guns…

Even if enacted, Feinstein’s proposal would be the most likely of all the major gun reforms being considered in Washington today to be overturned on Second Amendment grounds. The Supreme Court has held that the Second Amendment protects arms that are “in common use” for lawful purposes, like self-defense. There seems little doubt that assault weapons are in common use, given the millions of them in circulation. Of course, the courts might still have upheld the ban; a federal appeals court recently said that outlawing this one category of firearm didn’t substantially interfere with anyone’s self-defense. Strangely, the best thing an assault-weapons ban would have going for it is its loopholes. Because you could buy the exact same gun without the pistol grip, you weren’t really denied the right to have a semiautomatic rifle to defend yourself…

Ironically, the people who may be saddest to see Feinstein’s proposal go down are the gun-rights hardliners. They knew all along that the ban was riddled with loopholes, was easy to evade, and had little potential to impact crime. That’s in part why they wanted to focus on this proposal, rather than on background checks or limits on high-capacity magazines. Of course, the National Rifle Association leaders continue to denounce those other proposals. Yet it’s harder for them to make a persuasive public case against background checks—which primarily burden criminals and the mentally ill trying to buy guns—or magazine restrictions, which, in allowing people to have 10 rounds plus readily available, already-loaded replacement magazines, didn’t interfere with self-defense.

All good points, but realistically what was Obama supposed to do after Newtown? He and his party had just won big in November; he was staring at another imminent victory over the GOP on the fiscal cliff at New Year’s. OFA was getting set for its new role as official grassroots mobilizer for the 2014 midterms. He was at the peak of his political strength when the shooting happened and owed his base a ton for getting him another term. How was he supposed to tell them that an AWB was a bridge too far and that it wasn’t worth even trying to use the bully pulpit to make it happen? Also, how many times have you heard Democrats (Biden especially) say in the weeks after Newtown, “This time is different”? I think they honestly believed that public outrage, which typically deflates quickly after a mass shooting, might persist given the age of the victims and the wide sense among political analysts that the country was trending liberal. O had to try. And even if he failed to get something passed, he might have reasoned that the Dems would still gain two things in the process. One: They’d move the Overton window a bit such that, after the next mass shooting, an AWB might seem plausible enough to voters that there’ll be real heat put on red-state Dems and the GOP in Congress. Two: If they could hold their caucus together and turn this into a party-line issue, they might be able to use it against Republicans in 2014 to take back the House. Hasn’t worked out that way, but it was hard to predict that with absolute certainty in mid-December.

That’s the political argument. The strategic argument in terms of getting something through Congress is that, by initially asking for a lot with the AWB and then abandoning it, Reid makes Schumer’s bill on background checks look modest by comparison even though it’s not. That’s negotiating 101: Set your original price unrealistically high so that you can haggle your way towards what you reasonably expect. The AWB was always a longshot but universal background checks are more plausible; Reid’s willing to hand the GOP a victory on the former in order to give them cover to vote yes on the latter. (Schumer will, I bet, do the same thing on the immigration bill by caving on the border-security fig leaf in the name of nailing down Republican support on rapid legal status for the illegals who are here.) The risk, as Winkler notes in the excerpt, was that asking for a lot as an opening bid risked mobilizing gun-rights supporters more quickly. But gun-rights supporters were always going to mobilize; that’s what they do. If O hadn’t given them a lightning rod with the AWB, they would have fired lightning bolts at Schumer’s bill instead. (And likely still will.) And as for the constitutional point, that the Supremes would have struck down an AWB if it had passed, that depends mainly on whether Obama would get to replace one of the conservatives on the Court before the case made it up there. Even if Winkler’s right and it did get struck down, Democrats would get plenty of mileage out of that in riling up their base in future elections. All in all, they had to propose the AWB this time, even if it was — almost — guaranteed to fail.

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