The Media Myth Of The Assault Weapons Ban And The 1994 Elections Returns

Media outlets are reviving the myth that passage of the assault weapons ban was the crucial factor in Democratic defeats during the 1994 elections as President Obama moves to institute a new ban on assault weapons.

In some cases, those media are citing President Bill Clinton, who, according to Politico's uncritical report on his January 19 speech, “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.” Clinton also credited the National Rifle Association for the Democrats losing control of the House in his 2004 autobiography.

By contrast, The Chicago Tribune reported that while Clinton and others have cited gun violence prevention legislation as the key factor in the 1994 election, "[o]ther factors were at play in the Democrats' 1994 loss: Congress had raised taxes in 1993 and fought over health care reform."

Indeed, as US News reported in a January 17 article, political scientists who have analyzed the 1994 election say it is “mythology” that gun violence prevention laws were the primary reason the Democrats were defeated. According to the article, headlined “Gun Control Laws Weren't Primary Reason Dems Lost in 1994” (emphasis added):

While the '94 election proved Americans wanted Democrats out of congressional power (more than 50 Democratic seats were lost), it's less clear if the weapons ban, or any one issue, was the primary reason for their loss.

“This is a mythology that has developed,” says Philip Klinkner, who edited a book about the '94 elections. “That narrative stretches things way too far.”

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.

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.”

Recent history also demonstrates that Democratic House losses are not linked to gun violence prevention efforts or the work of the NRA. Republicans picked up 52 House seats in 1994, after passing the assault weapons ban. But they picked up 63 seats in 2010, after two years in which Congress had only expanded gun rights.

While the claim that the 1994 House elections swung on the issue of strengthening gun laws lacks evidence, it does have a clear beneficiary. As Jacobson told US News, the NRA has used this mythology “to frighten future incumbents and warn them that gun control is a losing issue,” thus quashing future gun violence prevention efforts.