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What Democrats Stand To Lose In the Gun Debate

Last Tuesday, former Associate Justice John Paul Stevens published an op-ed in The New York Times calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment. This is a notable first. Currently, there are no elected officials who have taken this position, and historically, it has proven taboo for Democrats, with candidates and elected officials around the country using any number of euphemisms to steer clear of directly calling for “gun control.”

This tide seems to be turning.

At last week’s protests, signs decrying the NRA’s support of looser gun regulations and calling for gun control embody how new voices are challenging the traditional gun-rights activist fervor in the debate over the Second Amendment. These protests have swept in a wave of vocal support for a shift to the left in the Democratic Party on this issue, and increasingly, activists’ calls insisting that their elected officials take a harder line on guns are becoming louder and more visible.

But this harder line could come at a big cost to Democrats.

According to a recent poll, just 16 percent of Independents and 8 percent of Republicans agree with Justice Stevens about repealing the Second Amendment, and despite the recent public support for greater gun control, it comes only at the end of a 20-year popular trend in favor of gun rights. In fact, it hasn’t even been ten years since the landmark Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller protected individual gun rights.

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If we are indeed at a turning point as these protests now suggest, we are still at a very early stage of the turn and a miscalculation now could table the debate for years to come.

Democrats are currently on track to make huge gains in the 2018 midterm elections. Of the special elections that have taken place so far, the trend of preference moving into the double digits in favor of Democrats candidates across the country has fueled Democratic enthusiasm and hope for the upcoming election year. It is this enthusiasm that has encouraged a new era of freshmen candidates to contest staunchly conservative national, state, and local districts. Already in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and even Alabama, Democrats have won.

But a shift to the left on gun rights amongst Democrats will alienate moderate voters, a vast majority of whom still favor the Second Amendment, in these states and others.

While national polls suggest a country whose attitudes are becoming slightly more favorable toward gun control, these changes are more prominent in the already heavily-Democratic regions of the West and the Northeast than in the Midwest and South, where support for gun control reforms remains below the national average and where Democrats are hoping to challenge Republican incumbents. If Democrats aim to win back control of the House, these more moderate districts are must-wins.

Democrats must now tread carefully or risk pushing too hard and losing the wind at their backs. It is easy to forget that despite this weekend’s protests, the United States is still a country with a very vocal minority who “cling to [their] guns,” as President Obama said in 2008. It is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the third of Americans who own guns continue to lead the conversation on gun rights, but it is a fact of American politics that cannot be ignored.

The national narrative might be turning, but that ship is turning a lot faster in more liberal urban areas than in more conservative rural and suburban ones. And it is the latter that Democrats have the greatest opportunity to flip.

Gun violence, and specifically mass shootings, have become far too egregious yet commonplace to ignore, but it has become evident that Republicans are unwilling to make substantial attempts at gun reforms. Come November, losing track of the nation’s pulse and following suit with Justice Steven’s op-ed could cost the Democrats control of the House and lead Republicans to claim a false mandate on the issue of gun rights. For this reason, Democrats should be wary of rallying behind repealing the Second Amendment.

Patrick C. Barham ’21 lives in Pennypacker Hall.

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