Washington Post Shows How -- And How Not To -- Cover The Politics Of Guns

A Washington Post article that called Hillary Clinton's strong embrace of gun safety proposals in her 2016 White House campaign “an important evolution in presidential politics” offered an in-depth look at the politics of gun safety, but also repeated the evidence-free conventional wisdom that Democrats lose elections when they support gun safety measures.

In a July 9 article, Washington Post national political correspondent Philip Rucker reported on Clinton's campaign trail vows to “speak out against the uncontrollable use of guns in our country” and to “take on the gun lobby.” Comparing Clinton's willingness to talk about guns to “timid” Democratic candidates in previous election cycles, Rucker wrote that Clinton's position “marks an important evolution in presidential politics” and is “a sign that the political environment on guns has shifted in the wake of recent mass shootings.”

In discussing the history of Democratic support for gun safety proposals, however, Rucker included the oft-repeated but baseless claim that support for gun safety is a perilous position for Democrats. Rucker cites former President Bill Clinton's claim that former Vice President Al Gore may have lost the 2000 presidential election because he supported the 1994 assault weapons ban, and adds, “Many Democratic lawmakers also lost their elections after gun-control votes.”

There is no evidence, however, that gun safety is a particularly politically dangerous issue for Democrats. Despite this, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has claimed for years that it can determine election outcomes for its opponents. This claim has been adopted as conventional wisdom by much of the media, even though it is without evidence.

In 2012, American Prospect senior writer Paul Waldman (a former employee of Media Matters), conducted a regression analysis of recent congressional races to determine if there is any truth to the claim that “Democrats shouldn't bring up the gun issue.” After analyzing NRA spending and endorsements in federal elections in 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010, Waldman concluded, “The NRA has virtually no impact on congressional elections” -- an outcome that “contradict[s] a conventional wisdom propagated by Democrats and Republicans alike, which says that any discussion of the possibility of restricting gun sales in any way will lead only to electoral catastrophe for Democrats, so formidable is the NRA's power.”

In The Post, Rucker also cites former President Clinton's view on the matter, writing, “In his memoir, ”My Life," former president Bill Clinton suggested that his vice president, Al Gore, lost the 2000 presidential election in part because of backlash in states such as Arkansas and Tennessee over the Clinton administration's 1995 ban on assault weapons, which has since expired."

While Clinton did make this claim in his memoir, there is no statistical evidence to support it. One 2000 study found that Gore's support for gun safety measures actually offered him a slight benefit on Election Day, which suggests he lost for other reasons. In fact, a 2000 survey of Tennessee voters found that residents supported more restrictions on gun ownership as opposed to fewer restrictions by a 51 point margin. It is far more likely that the reason why Gore lost several Southern states previously won by Clinton was because of a political shift that saw Southerners leaving the Democratic party, not his stance on assault weapons.

Although it repeated some tired conventional wisdom about Democrats and gun politics, Rucker's article deserves praise for providing a detailed look at important factors surrounding the gun debate.

Media reporting on support for gun safety measures often cite generic -- but flawed -- polling that asks respondents whether it is more important to “control gun ownership” or “protect the right of Americans to own guns.” This type of question presents the respondents with a false choice because measures like background checks promote gun safety without restricting gun rights.

Rucker's article goes more in depth, actually discussing poll results where respondents were asked whether they favor specific gun safety proposals. For example, Rucker found that background checks are overwhelmingly popular with the public:

A survey this year by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research found that 89 percent favor requiring background checks for all gun sales, including 85 percent of gun owners.

Rucker also reached out to Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who proved the convention wisdom on Democrats and guns wrong by winning two elections in Virginia for the governor's office and a U.S. Senate seat in the face of strong NRA opposition, providing a countervailing perspective to claims that the NRA opposition is particularly dangerous in swing states:

Other Democrats argue that Clinton has nothing to lose. Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) said the NRA has become a “paper tiger,” noting the elections he's won despite the NRA's vocal opposition.

“I think she has no illusion that even if she didn't say a word about guns, the NRA would be out there blasting her to say she had a conspiratorial plan to work with the U.N. to take everybody's guns away, so why not go head-on on an issue that will improve safety,” Kaine said.