When Republicans Favored Gun Control

Back in 1993, almost a quarter of Senate Republicans voted for the assault weapons ban. Today, it’s a very different story. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Every now and then I encounter some random piece of historical trivia and I remember: the Republican Party used to be sane. The last such epiphany occurred when I was researching the assault-weapons ban, which first passed the Senate in 1993. Scanning the roll call, I noticed an odd letter—“R”—next to some of the senators who had voted yes. Overall, 10 Republicans voted for the assault-weapons ban back then, almost a quarter of the GOP caucus. Today, by contrast, not a single Republican senator supports such a ban. Even the Obama administration’s less controversial proposal for background checks faces overwhelming GOP opposition. Today, in fact, most Senate Republicans don’t merely oppose new gun-control legislation; they oppose even holding a vote.

Looking at those names from 1993 is like fingering pottery shards from a once-robust civilization, now in ruins. Of the 10 yes votes, six came from Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, Oregon, and Colorado. Those states don’t have Republican senators anymore. In the presidential elections of the 1970s and 1980s, Oregon, Vermont, Delaware, and Colorado were almost always red; Rhode Island fluctuated between the parties. Last fall, Barack Obama won each handily.

But that’s only half the story. It’s not just that states that are now bright blue once elected moderate Republicans to the Senate. Conservative states used to elect Republican moderates too. The other four Republicans who backed the assault-weapons ban were Missouri’s John Danforth, Kansas’s Nancy Kassebaum, and Richard Lugar and Dan Coats from Indiana. What happened to each is instructive. Danforth soon left the Senate, and later condemned his party’s “fixation on a religious agenda.” He called last year’s Republican primary debates “embarrassing.” For her part, Kassebaum endorsed Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be Defense secretary, a nomination that most current Senate Republicans not only opposed but filibustered. A year ago, a Tea Party challenger defeated Lugar in the GOP primary. In his concession statement, Lugar warned that if the kind of ideological zealotry that defeated him “expands in the Republican Party, we will be relegated to minority status.” Six months later, a Democrat claimed Lugar’s seat. Of the four, only Coats remains in the Senate. (Actually, he left and returned.) But he now opposes any new limitations on gun ownership, despite having voted for them repeatedly in the 1990s.

beinart-NB10-gun-control-debate-embed-02 A Kentucky church hosts a Second Amendment celebration in 2009. Ed Reinke/Reuters

Today, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans are 4 points more likely to support “gun control” than “gun rights.” That’s almost identical to where Republicans were in 1993, when they favored gun control over gun rights by 2 points. The problem? Republicans now favor gun rights over gun control by 50 points. Which is to say: the party has gone off a cliff.

Americans have noticed. The percentage that considers the GOP too extreme has jumped 20 points since 2000. Americans now consider Republicans more extreme than Democrats by 16 points. John Danforth and Richard Lugar know a downward spiral when they see one. It’s just not clear if any Republican currently in the U.S. Senate does.