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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.

“I get people’s reservations on the Hill about this because there’s a stranglehold on the discussion,” Quigley said “It’s hard to explain in a campaign. For many here, it’s ‘Why bother with the risk?’”

After the shootings in Colorado, only one Democrat in a competitive race attacked his opponent’s gun control position in a statement: Mark Murphy, who is challenging Rep. Michael Grimm (R) in New York City.

But for the most part this cycle, the gun control debate has been nonexistent on the trail or confined to the most liberal and urban areas, such as Illinois’ 2nd district in Southside Chicago. In his March primary there, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) criticized his opponent, former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, for receiving the support of the NRA.

If gun control was going to be a major issue in any campaign this cycle, it would have been in the June special election in Arizona’s 8th district. It was 17 months after a gunman killed six and shot 13 more people, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), in a Tucson supermarket parking lot.

But not a single television advertisement mentioned gun control or Second Amendment issues. Instead, the campaigns leveled attacks on preserving Medicare, the president and the health care overhaul.

Not only is the issue of gun control virtually nonexistent in campaign ads, but there has been a recent increase in the use of firearms as props in political advertising.

Twenty years ago, it would be hard to imagine any candidate — let alone a Democrat — brandishing a rifle as Sen. Joe Manchin did in a 2010 campaign ad. In the years since the West Virginian shot a bullet through the cap-and-trade bill, a couple of his fellow Democrats have followed suit with similar ads.

“I’ve certainly noticed in Democratic politics there’s been a gradual change in the views,” said John Rowley, a longtime Democratic media consultant. “I think our party’s view — or at least a few consultants in our party’s view — has evolved.”

In recent cycles, voters have been more focused on economic issues and less on divisive social issues, and campaign messaging has followed. The economy continues to trump every other issue in federal races in public polling and on the campaign trail.

In 2008, Shays was one of a handful of Republicans who signed on to reauthorize the assault weapons ban. Even then, he started to have second thoughts about it.

“It’s not an issue that many people are going to talk about because our country right now is in a different kind of death spiral,” Shays said. “We need to be growing this economy. That’s what matters right now.”

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