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the Philadelphia Inquirer

Talk About Civility is Fine, but Where are the New Calls for Gun Control?

Dick Polman

Behold the silence of the lambs. Naturally, I'm talking about the Democrats.

One of their own House members has been plugged in the head by a nut job armed with a Glock and a high-capacity magazine, yet even now they can't muster the courage to talk about sensible gun curbs. That issue is off the national agenda because Democrats have been rendered mute by their terror of the gun lobby.

The timidity starts at the top. President Obama is predictably eloquent in his calls for greater civility, but he won't dare intimate that it might be wise to toughen background checks or restrict access to any weaponry. As a candidate, he called for a new federal assault-weapons ban - the old one, which expired in 2004, banned the rapid-fire clip that felled 19 people in Arizona - but he has been mum on that ever since. Meanwhile, he signed a measure that allows people to pack their pieces in national parks. All told, the gun-curb activists at the Brady Center (a very lonely bunch these days) have awarded Obama an F.

With a few notable exceptions, such as New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg and New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, Democratic lawmakers quake in their shoes. Last weekend, when the issue surfaced during an interview on Fox News, Delaware Sen. Chris Coons talked for a few seconds about the need "to responsibly enforce existing gun laws" before scurrying away: "I think, frankly, that we need to move forward toward the biggest challenges in front of us, making sure we get Americans back to work, tackling our deficit and our debt, dealing with the conflict in Afghanistan."

Call me crazy, but I think that keeping people safe qualifies as one of our "biggest challenges." The gun lobby has a point of view and the political clout to back it up. But, at minimum, other views also deserve to be aired. The rapid-fire clip used in Arizona was crafted to kill as many people as quickly as possible; it was not designed to help hunters take down Bambi and his brood. Is it no longer possible to even suggest that a new ban might save innocent lives - and perhaps cut America's gun-related death toll (31,224 in 2007), which is the scandal of the industrialized Western world?

This fairly sums up the state of affairs: McCarthy's lonely House bill would cut the capacity of those rapid-fire clips from 30 rounds to 10 - in other words, she seeks to lessen the number of people deranged individuals can kill without reloading - yet even this idea is DOA. The House Republicans will naturally see to that, but more striking is the silence on the Democratic side. If you hear so much as a syllable from Obama about this proposal, let me know. I've heard zip.

Sarah Brady, whose husband, Jim, was shot and incapacitated during the attempted 1981 assassination of President Ronald Reagan, spoke the other day on the issue where most Democrats fear to tread: "It's not a matter of banning guns by any means, or of taking away people's right to keep and bear arms. It's just a matter of regulations. For goodness' sakes, how many people need more than three or five rounds in a weapon?"

But Brady can speak freely without fear of being thrown out of office. For Democrats, that's the problem. They have come to believe - with empirical evidence - that it's stone-cold political suicide to talk about even the most modest gun curbs in a culture that is saturated with guns.

After President Bill Clinton prodded Congress to enact that ban on assault weapons in 1994, the National Rifle Association roused its constituents (including hunters, Second Amendment adherents, and blue-collar males) and worked successfully to oust at least a dozen pro-ban Democrats in the '94 midterms - thus aiding the ascent of Newt Gingrich and his conservative allies.

Democrats have never forgotten that episode, or what happened in the 2000 presidential campaign. Al Gore started out talking about gun control - in '99, he called for "sensible" purchase restrictions and said that "we have a flood of handguns that are too deadly" - but by election eve, he had fallen mute, hoping to win over male gun owners in key swing states. His silence didn't work. To this day, Democrats believe that Gore's candidacy was foiled by NRA efforts in Tennessee and West Virginia.

In recent years, Democrats have sought to make inroads in red states by quashing gun-curb talk and enlisting candidates - including Gabrielle Giffords - who shared the voters' gun love. A top priority was to win an NRA endorsement, or failing that, to ensure NRA neutrality. The strategy worked in 2006 and 2008; the strategy remains. Democrats won't hold the Senate in the '12 elections unless their red-state incumbents win again.

And over the last 20 years, public support for gun curbs has gone south. In 1990, Gallup reported 78 percent approval for stricter laws; in 2000, it was 62 percent; in 2010, 44 percent. All that despite the death toll from semiautomatics and rapid-clip magazines, including, but not limited to:

9 dead and 2 wounded at a Connecticut beer distributor in 2010.

13 dead and 30 wounded at Ford Hood in 2009.

3 cops shot dead at a Pittsburgh house in 2009.

33 dead and 17 wounded at Virginia Tech in 2007.

7 dead at a Hawaii office building in 1999.

8 dead and 7 wounded at a Texas church in 1999.

15 dead and 23 wounded at Columbine High School in 1999.

6 dead (one of them McCarthy's husband) and 19 wounded on the Long Island Railroad in 1993.

9 dead and 6 wounded at a San Francisco law office in 1993.

24 dead and 20 wounded at a Texas cafeteria in 1991.


I'm well aware that one side now dominates the national dialogue - as NRA bigwig Wayne LaPierre boasted last year, "The guys with the guns make the rules" - but is it too much to ask that Democrats put aside their instinct for self-preservation, albeit temporarily, and stand tall for common sense?

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