Despite limited political capital, Democrats contemplate gun control with a Senate win
With Trump’s loss in November and a pair of Georgia senate runoffs indicating that the Senate may also be in Democratic control as of the 5th of January, the party is anticipating holding two branches of the federal government together for the first time since Obama’s first two years as president. What they will do with this is unlikely to be anything resembling progress, given Biden’s promise to wealthy donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he became president and the general establishment Democrats’ opposition to programs like Medicare for All.
There is, however, one policy objective that has obsessed the Democratic Party for decades: gun control. Joe Biden was at the heart of the last attempt at a radical restructuring of gun ownership in 1994 with the Assault Weapons Ban and background checks required at the sale of each new gun, and he is hoping to redouble that legislative accomplishment with a new order of magnitude of intrusion into the lives of Americans with guns. His plan is nothing new. He wants to move so-called assault weapons onto the list of firearms regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934, thereby making semiautomatic rifles and magazines of greater than a ten round capacity the same in legal terms as machine guns, requiring a license and a $200 tax paid for each one. Beyond that, he wants gun makers to be sued out of existence on the basis of what customers do with guns, not because of a defective product, and to mandate background checks on every gun sale, whether from a licensed dealer or a private owner.
And on and on. Biden is an unimaginative politician who believes that his avuncular public image will be sufficient to make America forget the many crises that we face. It is possible that he has no intention of trying gun control again, having decided that being president will be enough. On the other hand, given how often he has sided with Republicans, he may have something more sinister in mind, something that the Democratic leadership has been willing to accommodate over the last three decades.
What do I have in mind here? Consider what happened the last two times when the party controlled both Congress and the White House. The 1994 accumulation of crime and law-enforcement legislation, along with Clinton’s bungled attempt at healthcare reform, resulted in a wipeout for the party in the mid-term elections. In 2010, Obama and the Democrats in Congress suffered the same outcome, this time focused on the passage of the Affordable Care Act, rather than any attack on gun rights. But the party has experienced two major losses after enacting cherished policy objectives.
Call me cynical, but the Democrats look happy to live in the opposition after scoring points. At heart, they are Republicans who are acceptable at coastal cocktail parties — Republicans who make nice with blacks and gays, but do nothing to achieve genuine progress for the country. Obamacare has left many Americans out, while codifying the doctrine that healthcare must remain a for-profit industry. The Crime Bill has had the effect of increasing on the federal level and encouraging in the states the reach and power of law enforcement over private activity, much of that aimed at minorities. Under the neoliberal consensus, a Democrat is a Republican who wants political stability to keep the wealthy happy. If the Republican Party can shake off their association with Trump’s cult, Democrats would have no deep objection to Republican control.
And pushing gun control is the sort of legislation that is likely to hand control over to the right wing. If this happens in 2022, Democrats will raise howls of feigned protest over how sorry they are not to be in charge, but they have done this before without learning any productive lessons.
What if, instead, Democrats were to focus on Medicare and College for All, on the Green New Deal, on ending the war on drugs, on any of a number of progressive goals that actually reduce violence and make life better for all? They might lose even then, but they would at least have worthy achievements to point to, especially as time goes by and these policies prove their worth. However, the last time Democrats were genuinely progressive — the decades between Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson — they enjoyed long stretches of power and left us with Social Security, Medicare, and civil rights, among other programs.
Progressive programs — programs that raise up the poor, that balance power on the side of the people against the oligarchy — are popular. Gun control may look like something with mass appeal, but when it gets enacted, voters lash out at the politicians who have intruded into their lives. If Biden and the Democrats would like to be remembered as having done good for the country — or if they would like actually to do good — they should learn the lessons of the past and stop wasting political capital on attempts to burden the lives of the law-abiding.