Issue of Gun Rights Still Holds Sway
By CARL HULSE
Democrats have been exorcising some of their most stubborn political demons of late.
In challenging former President George W. Bush over the war in Iraq, they showed they were overcoming their deep post-Vietnam fear of being painted as weak on defense when taking a strong anti-war stance. Now, exhibiting comfort with rolling back Bush-era tax cuts, Democrats seem to be losing their anxiety about the tax-and-spend label.
But there is one issue that retains the power to leave Democrats quivering: gun rights. Gun issues still persistently tie the party in knots and have been used by Republicans to stall two major bills this year, with more likely to come.
“It is a hot-button issue,” said Representative Allen Boyd, Democrat of Florida, a longtime hunter and one of the moderates who typically split from the more liberal wing of the party to support the rights of gun owners. “Some people around here know they can use it as a wedge issue, and they try to do that.”
It is a particularly hot-button topic with veteran Congressional Democrats who believe the party’s strong support for a 1994 assault weapons ban was the real reason they lost control of the House that year — not the House bank scandal, the failed health care initiative, the Contract with America or Newt Gingrich.
The power of that bad memory was unmistakable a few weeks ago in the immediacy with which Speaker Nancy Pelosi shot down the suggestion by new Attorney General Eric Holder that Congress might reinstitute the assault weapons ban.
“On that score, I think we need to enforce the laws we have right now,” said Ms. Pelosi, echoing the position often taken by advocates of gun rights.
Gun rights are probably equaled only by abortion rights in their ability to split Democrats and create political havoc.
Well aware of the Democratic sensitivity on guns and the reluctance of suburban and rural lawmakers to cast any vote that could be perceived as anti-gun, Republicans see the issue as one of their most effective poison pills to sabotage legislation. They were able to add an expansion of gun ownership in the District of Columbia to a long-sought measure giving the district a full-voting seat in the House of Representatives. Now the gun issue is an anchor on the bill in the House.
Democrats also came up just short of winning approval of a public lands bill this week because of three Democratic holdouts. They were influenced in part by concerns that the bill would upset gun owners even though the National Rifle Association had already signed off after a promise that the bill would not curtail hunting on federal land.
Democratic leaders admit they are confounded by the mounting problems with gun votes and are trying to find a way out of a situation that is partly a product of their own success. The wider their majority, the more members Democrats have from swing districts where gun rights are likely to be a prominent issue.
One of those members, Representative Travis Childers of Mississippi, last year was able to win House approval of his plan to let residents of the District of Columbia buy and keep guns in their homes for self-protection, a further retreat from the district’s virtually universal ban on legal handgun ownership that had already been relaxed by the Supreme Court.
“The Second Amendment right is a long-standing pillar in our system of government, and I believe law-abiding citizens should have the right to defend their homes in the District of Columbia, just like they have the ability to do so in the First Congressional District of Mississippi,” said Mr. Childers, who persuaded 81 other Democrats to side with him.
Democratic leaders say that baseline of 80 or so Democrats has undoubtedly grown, given gains in moderate districts last November, providing a solid House majority for gun rights when combined when strong support among Republicans. The cultural shift is pronounced — this week’s mass shootings in Alabama and Germany stirred hardly a Congressional call for new gun restrictions, a contrast from past episodes.
Even with important legislation on the line, Ms. Pelosi and other Democratic leaders seem unwilling to demand that Democrats with a record of backing gun rights relent when the issue is secondary, as is the case with the District of Columbia voting-rights bill.
“Members come here to represent their districts, and I respect that,” Ms. Pelosi said.
And the fact is many conservative and moderate Democrats are not simply acting out of worry of getting a black mark from the N.R.A — they are hunters and sportsmen and strongly believe in the right to own and bear arms.
But what some Democratic leaders fear is that Republicans are taking better advantage of the party divide on the subject and will step up their use of gun rights to derail other issues in the months ahead.
Mr. Boyd, the Florida lawmaker, said that Democrats cannot let that happen.
“The truth is this administration and this Congress have some very serious economic problems to deal with and we are going to get through them,” he said. “Hopefully we will work around these distractions.”