July 31, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Gun Control Issue Absent on the Trail

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Former Rep. Christopher Shays, a proponent of the federal assault weapons ban in the ’90s and now running in the GOP Senate primary, has disavowed the defunct law.

Look no further than Connecticut — one of the last bastions for moderate Republicans — for evidence of the marginalized gun control debate.

Former Rep. Christopher Shays, one of the original proponents of the federal assault weapons ban and now running in the Senate GOP primary, disavowed the defunct law as ineffective in the wake of the recent Colorado shooting.

“I couldn’t defend my own vote,” Shays said in an interview Tuesday. “Americans have a right to have weapons. The Second Amendment is alive and well and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court.”

Congressional candidates rarely highlight their position on gun control on the campaign trail anymore — even in the wake of tragedies such as the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Many media consultants — Republicans and Democrats — interviewed for this story were hard-pressed to remember the last time they featured gun issues prominently in a commercial for a candidate.

Many gun control advocates, such as Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), blame the influential National Rifle Association for shifting the gun control debate in Congress during the past 20 years. But Democrats also describe a significant cultural shift in voters’ attitudes toward guns.

“The debate has really become marginalized,” said Alan Secrest, a former Democratic pollster. “The issue has settled into the American political consciousness. Most voters aren’t looking into this issue for very many clues as to the candidates’ character.”

Republicans counter that Democrats no longer raise the issue because they realized it didn’t win elections. After the federal assault weapons ban passed in 1994, Democrats struggled to appeal to independent and suburban voters for more than a decade.

In 2006, when Democrats made a concerted effort to recruit conservative candidates in competitive districts, the party made significant progress. Chris LaCivita, a Republican consultant based in Virginia, remembered Mark Warner as the first statewide Democratic candidate who didn’t push a gun control policy. Warner won the state’s governorship in 2001 and won an open Senate seat in 2008.

“Since 2001, the issue of gun control and the debate over gun rights as a political issue has essentially ended because Democrats figured out it wasn’t an issue they could win on,” LaCivita said.

These days, candidates most often raise the issue in the context of Second Amendment rights to stress their conservative bona fides in a competitive race or Republican primary. But even in those instances, candidates give Second Amendment issues a passing reference in a television commercial or direct mail piece.

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