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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Guns, Colorado, and the War for Public Opinion

It was quite a long time ago, so I don't remember who said it. I wish I did, because it's stuck with me. John Kerry had just lost to George W. Bush and a radio show was doing a campaign post-mortem to figure out what went wrong for Democrats. The subject of marriage equality came up and a Democratic strategist dismissed the idea of retreating from that front to win elections. "I'd lose a thousand elections over gay marriage," he said. It wasn't John Kerry's position or the Democratic Party's, but it was the rank-and-file's. It's always the progressive wing that drags the Democrat Party into the future. And it always works out well in a historical sense. Progressives are the conscience of the party. You don't abandon what's right for political gain.

Beyond the obvious reasons for this -- e.i., winning elections for the sake of winning elections is nihilism -- there is a longer term reward. If you stand up for what's right when the odds are against you, history remembers that courage and you own that issue forever. It wasn't conservatives who marched with Martin Luther King, as much as they like to pretend the opposite. It was liberals. The conservative attitude toward King was summed up by Ronald Reagan, who argued that King was on the wrong side of the law and, therefore, the wrong side of history. "It's the sort of great tragedy when we begin compromising with law and order and people started choosing which laws they would break," Reagan said, referring to the campaign of civil disobedience that challenged segregation by breaking Jim Crow laws. Being an authoritarian party, order is more important to Republicans than justice.

At the time, King was a deeply unpopular figure, but progressives stuck with him and now the left is rewarded for that courage. The percentage of African-Americans who vote Republican is so tiny that they're basically the crank demographic. You can call it karma if you want, but it's just the obvious result of making the right call -- when you stand on the right side of history, public opinion eventually comes to you. It has to.


I bring this all up because of a recall vote in Colorado last night.

Denver Post: An epic national debate over gun rights in Colorado on Tuesday saw two Democratic state senators ousted for their support for stricter laws, a "ready, aim, fired" message intended to stop other politicians for pushing for firearms restrictions. Senate President John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron will be replaced in office with Republican candidates who petitioned onto the recall ballot.

Party insiders always said Giron's race was the harder one. Although her district is heavily Democratic, Pueblo is a blue-collar union town. Morse's district included Manitou Springs and a portion of Colorado Springs — and more liberals.
I would lose a thousand elections over gun safety.

The elections were largely symbolic, since they have no chance at all of resulting in the gun regulations being overturned. Control of the Senate remains Democratic. Gov. John Hickenlooper is on shaky ground for reelection, but that was true before the issue came up.

Basically, the point of the recall was entirely political and not so much about Colorado. It was about the gun lobby hanging two shrunken heads from their belt, which they'll use to scare other politicians away from voting for common sense gun regulations. But they're cherrypicking their battles, only picking the ones they know they can win and hoping no one notices the ones they sit out. One like this:

ThinkProgress: After more than a year and hundreds of hours of testimony, a version of a Newtown gun ordinance first proposed before the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School has been adopted unanimously by the town’s Legislative Council.

The compromise measure, which encountered significant resistance before tragedy struck the town, addresses recreational shooting and does not apply to hunting, in a town that is home to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. It gives shooters four hours after notifying the police to use their firearms, and such recreational shooting can only occur one person at a time, at set distances from the target, neighboring properties, and any school, according to the News Times.
This follows another high profile loss for the gun industry, when the state of Connecticut passed the "toughest" gun restrictions in the nation. While the gun lobby offered token resistance at the time and has complained about the law, talk of repeal has been largely absent.

And that's another reason to be willing to lose a thousand elections over gun safety -- because the NRA isn't. We don't win battles by default if we don't show up either. It's easy to choose only the fights you'll know you'll win, but if you believe in a cause, you're willing to defend hills you know you'll lose -- just to bloody up your opponents and wear them down. When the civil rights marchers were attacked by dogs and racist cops with truncheons and water cannons, it sure didn't look like they were winning.

But they were.

And so are we. Our fight is so much easier, because we won't be asked to suffer beatings and arrests.

No election will end the fight for safer streets and schools. We win that one by changing people's attitudes. When Mothers Against Drunk Driving began their campaign to crack down on DUI, they were opposed by the well-funded liquor industry and tavern leagues. But they've worked at changing people's attitudes and were so successful that their former opponents have come to at least pretend they're on the same page. No one would argue that drunk driving isn't all that big a deal or that cops shouldn't waste a lot of resources fighting it. They wouldn't dare.

The NRA will march around with heads on pikes, pretending they're undefeatable. But they run from more fights than they win. And when they run, we should make sure that there's always someone chasing them.


[photo by Michele Hubacek]

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