Over the weekend, Media Matters reported on the revival of the notion that the assault weapons ban cost Democrats in 1994 and will do so again. This particular mythology has taken hold here as well. It's unusual to be put in the position of mythbusting Bill Clinton, but as I saw when reading some of his book, even his version of the 1994 elections isn't as simple as gun enthusiasts make it out to be.

As for myself, I'm under no illusion that banning assault weapons will solve the nation's problems with gun violence by itself. As the President himself put it, however,

Because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there is even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try.

So, this is the myth, put simply. It's a shame to find it here so prominently, but I would be remiss in not mentioning it.

Moderate or extreme, we hold one common belief: more gun control equals lost elections. We don't want a repeat of 1994.
Likewise, Media Matters reports that this myth has been resurrected. For example: here in Arizona...
Brooks, who died Dec. 4, lost his House seat in the 1994 election as part of a backlash to the assault-weapons ban that is believed to have contributed to that year’s “Republican Revolution.”

Other political casualties included one-term Rep. Karan English, D-Ariz., whose vote for the ban likely was a factor in her loss to GOP challenger J.D. Hayworth. English’s district included part of rural Arizona, where many voters cherish gun rights.

...from McClatchy Newspapers...
Even Democrats have shied away from gun control since the 1990s – particularly after losing so many seats in the 1994 elections – when they realized it was working against them in marginal states. That’s why the shift among some now is so remarkable.
...from Politico...
And Clinton said that passing the 1994 federal assault weapons ban “devastated” more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers in the 1994 midterms — and cost then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley (D-Wash.) his job and his seat in Congress.
...and from the Detroit Free Press. This seems like a bit of overkill, but there is a point to it.
Never far from such Democrats' minds is what happened in 1994, when the party suffered widespread election losses after backing President Bill Clinton's crime bill featuring a ban on assault weapons. Clinton and others credited the NRA's campaigning with a big role in those Democrats' defeats. And when the assault weapons ban came up for congressional renewal in 2004, it failed.
This last article also mentions that "To succeed will require overturning two decades of conventional wisdom that gun control is bad politics." But that's the thing about conventional wisdom. Because it's generally accepted, does that make it true? Likewise for Bill Clinton; to cite him is an argument from authority, reasonably considered a good one where politics is concerned. But what has he said about this, and are his opinions supported?

Studying this issue meant looking at this "Republican Revolution". What I found was interesting, although it did not fit into the conventional wisdom that the assault weapons ban single-handedly devastated the Democratic party, to the point that we must never do anything like that again.

Large Republican gains were made in state houses as well when the GOP picked up twelve gubernatorial seats and 472 legislative seats. In so doing, it took control of 20 state legislatures from the Democrats. Prior to this, Republicans had not held the majority of governorships since 1972. In addition, this was the first time in 50 years that the GOP controlled a majority of state legislatures.

Discontent against the Democrats was foreshadowed by a string of elections after 1992, including the capture of the mayoralties of New York and Los Angeles by the Republicans in 1993. In that same year, Christine Todd Whitman captured the New Jersey governorship from the Democrats and Bret Schundler became the first Republican mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey that had been held by the Democratic Party since 1917.

This story reminds me of 2010, no gun control to blame then! But if there was growing discontent against the Democrats dating back to 1993, this casts doubt on the AWB having sole responsibility. Likewise, the Wiki article on the 1994 election itself cites a number of issues contributing to the Democrats' losses.
The Democratic Party had run the House for all but four of the preceding 62 years. The Republican Party, united behind Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, which promised floor votes on various popular and institutional reforms, was able to capitalize on the perception that the House leadership was corrupt, as well as the dissatisfaction of conservative and many independent voters with President Clinton's actions (including a failed attempt at universal health care and gun control measures).
As for Bill Clinton, since he is frequently cited by gun enthusiasts in support of the status quo, I have spent some time looking into his book, My Life, where he wrote about what happened in 1994. I pulled some quotes from the book a couple of weeks ago while debating the subject here.
Ironically, I had hurt the Democrats by both my victories and my defeats. The loss of healthcare and the passage of NAFTA demoralized many of our base voters and depressed our turnout. The victories on the economic plan with its tax increases on high-income Americans, the Brady bill, and the assault weapons ban inflamed the Republican base voters and increased their turnout. The turnout differential alone probably accounted for half of our losses, and contributed to a Republican gain of eleven governorships.
But to hear this story nowadays, it's all about the guns. None of the mythologists quoted above make any mention of anything else but the assault weapons ban. It's as if this one piece of legislation was created in a vacuum and "devastated" (as Politico puts it in quotes) the Democratic party all by itself. That is the story being peddled -- the myth. And even Bill Clinton exhibits more nuance, when he's not being selectively quoted.
After the election I had to face the fact that the law-enforcement groups and other supporters of responsible gun legislation, though they represented the majority of Americans, simply could not protect their friends in Congress from the NRA. The gun lobby outspent, outorganized, outfought, and outdemagogued them.
Bill Clinton's book has some warnings for us, that we would be well advised to heed. Not necessarily the myth blanketing the news media, but to expect a fight. Both before, and especially after passing any new law. Even the Politico article can be useful in this regard.
“I’ve had many sleepless nights in the many years since,” Clinton said. One reason? “I never had any sessions with the House members who were vulnerable,” he explained — saying that he had assumed they already knew how to explain their vote for the ban to their constituents.
These are lessons that the President and gun control advocates seem to have learned. I don't see Obama taking this for granted. I see him instead targeting the NRA for the enemy that it is. I see his supporters lining up more than voices and faces, but cash. Groups lining up to counter the influence of the NRA, which is already issuing talking points to its advocates in cable TV.
The National Rifle Association is using six cable TV shows its produces or sponsors to convey its talking points to viewers in more than 30 million homes, Reuters reported.

The shows, which air on the Outdoor and Sportsman channels, have ramped up their pro-NRA rhetoric as President Barack Obama has pushed for gun control. Last week he signed an executive order aimed at curbing gun violence.

The NRA deserves this attention, not necessarily because it has a proven track record of delivering election wins through spending its own money -- it doesn't... (see arrow below, pointing at the teeny tiny little bitty smidgen of win from all that NRA money)
...but because of this particular mythology, and the fear of the NRA it has instilled in the Democratic party, and because the media just laps up this conventional wisdom and repeats it so willingly.

But after all that's been said, that there are lessons to learn and preparations to make and actual data on the NRA's influence to consider -- has anyone looked back at 1994 with any more substantive analysis than Bill Clinton's reminiscing? For that, Media Matters cited an article from US News.

The truth, political scientists say, is that it can be attributed to a combination of factors, and the "assault weapons" ban was just one of several controversial votes that led to the loss.

With Democrats in charge of the House, Senate and White House, the 103rd Congress tackled a long, progressive wish list. The White House pressured legislators to take on healthcare reform (unsuccessfully), pass the North American Free Trade Agreement and raise taxes through a deficit reduction act, which was fraught with political land mines for congressional Democrats. None of the policies helped earn legislators points back home among their more conservative constituents.

"The vote for gun control mattered, but the vote for the tax increase and healthcare were more important," says Gary Jacobson, who has done a statistical analysis of what votes affected the outcome of the 1994 election.

Curiously, this seems to fit the narrative actually found in Clinton's book, as opposed to the selective quotation therefrom. Media Matters takes a bit more bandwidth to put this myth to bed, by the use of data and analysis as opposed to conventional wisdom.
According to Jacobson's analysis, the 1994 election results were largely due to a political realignment, with voters no longer splitting their tickets and instead voting for Republican congressional challengers in districts in which President Clinton had lost in 1992."Republicans won the House in 1994," Jacobson wrote, "because an unusually large number of districts voted locally as they had been voting nationally."

Indeed, as American Prospect contributing editor (and former Media Matters staffer) Paul Waldman has noted, an analysis of the impact of NRA endorsements during the 1994 election found that Republican challengers to Democratic incumbents received a 2-point boost from the endorsement; no other NRA endorsees received a benefit. Waldman points out that since only 9 NRA-endorsed challengers won by four points or fewer, "even if we were to attribute every last one of those nine victories to the NRA and assume that without the organization each race would have gone Democratic - an extremely generous assumption - the Republicans would still have gained 45 seats and won control of the House."

I don't expect that this analysis will stop the media from more breathless reportage on the dangers of passing gun control legislation. I don't even expect it to stop here. But this mythology lacks evidential support. And the vaunted authority, Bill Clinton, can tell us a lot about how to prepare for the NRA onslaught, how to beat it. We can do better than we did in 1994. History -- even this biased, gun enthusiasts' spin on history -- need not be repeated.

Originally posted to The Tytalan Way on Tue Jan 22, 2013 at 09:32 AM PST.

Also republished by Shut Down the NRA.

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