S.E. Cupp Uses NRA Media Myth To Find Danger In Clinton's Opposition To Assault Weapons

CNN host S.E. Cupp baselessly suggested that Hillary Clinton's support for a ban on assault weapons is bad politics by promoting the myth that the 1994 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives was fueled by the passage of an assault weapons ban that year.

In fact, political scientists say tax increases and a fight over healthcare reform better explain the Republican takeover. But conservative pundits often incorporate the 1994 assault weapons ban into the media myth that it is politically unwise for politicians to support gun reform and that the National Rifle Association has the ability to use the gun issue to determine election outcomes.

During a June 17 town hall forum on CNN, Clinton expressed support for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, as well as expanded background checks on gun sales. On the gun debate, Clinton added, “we need a more thoughtful conversation, we cannot let a minority of people ... hold a viewpoint that terrorizes the majority of people.”

Appearing on CNN's The Situation Room after the town hall discussion, Cupp suggested political danger in Clinton's position, stating, “Democrats really suffered, and Hillary Clinton knows this, Democrats really suffered the last time they enacted an assault weapon ban. There were a lot of Democrats who were thrown out of office the last time that passed.”

In a January 17, 2013, US News article headlined “Gun Control Laws Weren't Primary Reason Dems Lost in 1994” political scientists and 1994 election experts Philip Klinkner and Gary Jacobson are quoted arguing that assault weapons ban legislation was only one of several controversial votes leading up to the midterm elections but that a “mythology” was formed around the gun vote. Klinkner and Jacobson instead pinned the electoral success of the Republican Party on the failure of health care reform and tax increases:

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. Jacobson concluded, “Republicans won the House in 1994 because an unusually large number of districts voted locally as they had been voting nationally.”

Although the NRA is often given the lion's share of credit for the Republican takeover, American Prospect contributing editor (and former Media Matters staffer) Paul Waldman conducted an analysis that found even without the slight boost seen in NRA-backed Republican candidates in 1994, Republicans would have still taken over the House:

In 1994, however, there were an unusual number of close races, and 12 Republican challengers won by a margin of 4 points or less. Of those, nine were endorsed by the NRA. The GOP needed a net gain of 41 seats to take control of the House, and their actual net gain on election night was 54 seats. So 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.

(Overall Waldman's analysis of recent House election cycles found the value of NRA spending or endorsements to be highly overrated as a benefit to candidates. Between 2004 and 2010, Waldman found that an NRA endorsement swung just four out of 1,038 House races.)

Successful presidential aspirants routinely support assault weapons bans. Republican President George W. Bush supported the reauthorization of the ban -- the legislation had a 10-year sunset provision -- during his successful reelection run. In 2003, The New York Times reported that “President Bush and the National Rifle Association, long regarded as staunch allies, find themselves unlikely adversaries over one of the most significant pieces of gun-control legislation in the last decade, a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons.”

Bush spokesperson Scott McClellan said Bush believed an assault weapons ban was “reasonable” and “the right policy for Americans.” Bush went on to defeat Democratic challenger John Kerry, and despite his campaign promises allowed the ban to expire in 2004. Bush also supported an assault weapons ban during his 2000 campaign against Al Gore.

President Obama was also twice elected president by comfortable margins while advocating for an assault weapons ban. Bill Clinton was similarly reelected in an electoral landslide two years after signing the ban into law.