Tough Gun Votes Could End Careers on Capitol Hill

Jill Lawrence

There aren't too many votes with the potential to make or break a congressional career, but the upcoming gun-control showdown on Capitol Hill is one of them. For true believers aligned with their states, red or blue, the choice is easy. The rest could face difficult questions, such as “Am I willing to lose my job over this?” and “Will I be able to live with my vote?”

Rightly or wrongly, scores of defeats in the past 20 years have been blamed on votes that live in political infamy: Bill Clinton’s 1993 budget that raised taxes, the 10-year assault-weapons ban passed in 1994, the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (better known as the bank bailout), and the 2010 Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare).

Support for gun control in particular is perceived as a career killer, largely because of the outsized reputation of the National Rifle Association. The group’s electoral record isn’t as bulletproof as you might think. As Dorothy Samuels noted in The New York Times in 2009, several factors contributed to the Republican sweep of 1994. Clinton went on to highlight his gun-control successes in his winning 1996 campaign. And four years later, gun-rights stalwarts backed by the NRA lost to Democrats in Senate elections in Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington.

So you can buck the NRA and win. That could be particularly true this year, when the NRA is on the wrong side of public-opinion polls that show nine in 10 Americans support universal background checks for prospective gun buyers. Still, crossing the NRA is not risk-free. It could encourage primary challenges next year against Republicans. It could also boost GOP odds in conservative states now represented by Democrats, such as Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

But voting the NRA line isn't entirely without risk, either. Lawmakers could be accused of doing the bidding of a group so far right that it even opposes a new bipartisan compromise to close major loopholes in the background-check system. Or, as former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough put it this week on his MSNBC show, Morning Joe: “If you're Kay Hagan in North Carolina and you're Mary Landrieu and you're running for reelection (next) year, do you really want to go to women's groups and say, 'You know, I didn't have the courage to vote to make sure we could have criminal background checks so rapists couldn't go and buy guns?' " He went on to say that “anybody that votes against criminal background checks” is basically saying “let’s give them a free pass” to buy guns.

There’s room for ambivalence toward the proposals coming before the Senate this week, including expanded background checks and limits on assault weapons and magazine clips. You don’t have to be a Second Amendment fanatic to wonder, as Kathleen Parker did Wednesday in The Washington Post, if at least some of them are simply “balm” to make us feel better. Yet she’s wrong, for instance, to say categorically that it wouldn’t do any good to limit the size of magazines because “maybe a killer simply would carry several small magazines and swap them out.”

In the January 2011 Tucson rampage, several people tackled Jared Loughner and wrested a new magazine from him after he had emptied a 30-round clip and was trying to reload. And in Newtown, where Adam Lanza’s ammunition included 10 30-round clips, parents and other relatives of the victims said 11 children escaped while he was reloading. The families say more lives would have been saved if he had been forced to reload more often.

Once they make their decisions, the questions for politicians are all about the future. When the next shooting happens, as it will, are they prepared to defend a vote against a restriction that might have stopped it? And if they vote for new gun controls, are they prepared for the possibility that voters will oust them?

Former Reps. Marjorie Margolies of Pennsylvania and Karen Shepherd of Utah both lost their seats after voting for Clinton’s 1993 budget, and they say they don’t regret their decisions. “You really have to do what is right and not what you have justified is right" because of your determination to win, Margolies told me three years ago.

And of course, there is always the possibility of a second chance. Margolies recently confirmed that she is considering a race for the House next year, 20 years after her defeat. If she does it, she’ll be owed plenty of help from Bill Clinton, whose daughter is now married to her son, and whose economic plan she saved with her eleventh-hour “aye” vote.