Yes, Gun Violence Is a Political Issue

1002_Obama Gun Control
TV reporters do their standups as President Barack Obama arrives in the White House briefing room to speak about the school shooting in Oregon on October 1. After the latest mass shooting, Obama angrily said that gun laws need to be changed and took aim at the powerful gun lobby for blocking reform. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

There has been no calendar week during President Barack Obama’s second term without a mass shooting. The massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, that left 10 dead and seven injured on October 1 was the latest to cause him to make an anguished statement.

Despite making seven similar impromptu trips to the podium in previous years, this time the increasingly uninhibited president expressed a rare and powerful frustration.

“This is something we should politicize,” Obama said. “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough.” That’s a far cry from the hours after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting, when Jay Carney, White House spokesman at the time, played down any focus on politics, saying, “I don’t think today is that day.”

Obama is right in his call to politicize the issue. Gun safety advocates who are fatalistic about the possibility for legislative reform play right into the gun lobby’s hands. The attitude that “nothing will ever change” is a great way to make sure it never does.

But the fact is that numerous events since Newtown have weakened the National Rifle Association and demonstrated that gun control is an issue that Democrats can run on—and win. First, the 2013 Manchin-Toomey background check bill eliminated any pretense that the NRA will defend Democratic elected officials that cater to it. Two red-state Democrats who were up for re-election the next year, Mark Pryor and Mark Begich, were among the minority of senators who voted to block the bill, assuming they would get the coveted protection of the NRA in their upcoming election fights.

Instead, the NRA endorsed Pryor’s opponent in Arkansas, Tom Cotton, and opted to not endorse at all in Begich’s Alaska race, while his opponent, Dan Sullivan, still found ways to attack him on guns. Both Begich and Pryor tried to toe the NRA line, and they both were left hung out to dry.

In addition, several races in which guns were a defining issue have gone to the supporter of gun safety. In 2013, Terry McAuliffe touted his F rating from the NRA, called for a ban on assault weapons and beat the gun lobby in its home state in his run for Virginia governor. In 2014, incumbent governors John Hickenlooper in Colorado and Dannel Malloy in Connecticut won tight races in a bad year for Democrats after each passed strong gun control bills.

Even the successful NRA-backed recalls of two Colorado state senators in 2013, which understandably struck fear in the hearts of many gun safety advocates, were reversed the next regular election cycle: Anti-NRA candidates won back both seats, including one by a former aide to for New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.  

With the 2016 election coming up, gun safety advocates have a real chance to continue this momentum. The upcoming races provide another distinct opportunity to politicize gun control in competitive races and win. There is no better place to focus that energy than on New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte.

In 2013, Ayotte voted to block the Manchin-Toomey bill from moving forward. She took heat for it back home immediately: Her net approval nosedived 15 points, and voters said they were less likely to vote for her in future elections after her opposition to background checks. Erica Lafferty, the daughter of Newtown’s Sandy Hook School principal and shooting victim Dawn Hochsprung, memorably took her to task in person for her irresponsible decision.

Now Ayotte is likely to be in a tight race with national attention and investment. And given her record on the issue, it is guaranteed to be a race with a clear contrast on the issue of gun safety. Her defeat in New Hampshire would be the biggest statement yet that elected officials should be more worried about crossing the overwhelming majority of voters than they are about crossing the gun lobby.

The urgency is certainly there to try. The Umpqua Community College shooting was the 294th mass shooting this year, according to ShootingTracker.com, which counts every event in which at least four people are shot. The 295th came just a few hours later, a “domestic disturbance” that left three dead, including the shooter, and one injured. Another day in America, where guns take 30,000 lives every year.

There is an awful truth in the president’s words that he “can’t guarantee” he won’t have to make another statement in the wake of a catastrophic act of gun violence. But the notion that we can’t change—that being gunned down in a school or a church or a workplace is a risk of living in modern America—is simply not true.

There is momentum for change. We can take more steps to hold lawmakers accountable. We can’t be afraid to do to this horrible gun violence exactly what Obama said: politicize it.

Charles Posner is the policy manager at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, where he has worked on gun and crime policy since 2013.