The mayor is ramping up his efforts for gun control in Chicago—which if experience is any guide, are largely ineffective when it’s limited to the city and the state, though there’s evidence that they do drive up prices. Recognizing that, Emanuel addressed national gun control yesterday at the Center for American Progress, just ahead of the President’s announcement tomorrow: “if we’re not comprehensive, our laws are as effective as they are nationally.” So he’s making similar efforts towards a bill on the congressional level as well: comprehensive background checks, uniform information reporting across states, changing the language of the pitch:
Emanuel said one way Democrats got an assault weapons ban passed in 1994 was to cast a ban as a crime reduction measure.
“It’s all about criminal access. It’s not about gun control. It’s about criminal access,” Emanuel said. “That changes the debate.”
He called on gun control advocates to get the law enforcement community on board, and to put them “front and center” in any policy push. He also said proponents need to add proposals to any gun control package that focus crime prevention to drive the message home that the bill is a crime bill not a gun bill.
He added that law enforcement needs to be the face of the effort, not pols.
On February 25, (2009) Jim Messina, Emanuel’s deputy, walked into his boss’s office to inform him of Holder’s latest ‘gaffe.’At a press conference earlier that day, Holder had told reporters that the administration would push to reinstate the assault-weapons ban, which had expired in 2004. The comments roused the powerful gun lobby and its water carriers on Capitol Hill.
The back story on this is important. Emanuel, as a congressman who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (and as such helped recapture the House) came to understand that for many Democratic members of Congress is swing districts, supporting gun control was a liability. The “majority makers,” as then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi came to call them, were often from rural or blue collar districts where the NRA was active.
It’s a bit more complicated than that; it’s not that Emanuel has historically been anti-gun-control, under any circumstances. As Bill Clinton’s advisor, Emanuel was the political architect behind that assault-weapons ban. And his advice to Democrats, given at the CAP event, is a return to his original strategy, at least in terms of messaging:
Rahm Emanuel, the hard-charging White House senior adviser, engineered the main strategy: shove provisions favored by conservatives (more death penalty and prisons) and those fancied by liberals (gun control and rehabilitation programs) into a single package, and the $25 billion-plus bill would have a shot of success. Meanwhile, Clinton draped himself in cops. “At every event he had touting the bill and the assault weapons ban, he had at least 40 cops,” a former Clinton Justice Department official recalls. “And he was pro-death penalty.”
In the ensuing war with the NRA, which was adamantly opposed to the assault weapons ban (even a ban severely weakened through legislative compromise), Clinton used police officers, who argued they were being outgunned by criminals and mad men, as his backup. The fight, as Clinton orchestrated it, was not a soft-on-crime Democratic politician versus the all-American NRA; it was cops versus the extremists of the gun lobby. As the political pros of today might say, Clinton flipped the optics.
What changed from 2009 to 2012? While Democratic vulnerability to the gun lobby may have been overstated, Emanuel, in his efforts to win back the house, was likely more sensitive to the Blue Dog districts (like the ones I grew up around) where fealty to the NRA is expected. Now Emanuel thinks “the country’s in a different place, like it was when we did Brady.”
Update: The University of Chicago’s new Institute of Politics (see our interview with David Axelrod about it) is hosting a forum on The Politics of Guns in America tonight, featuring Emanuel, the U. of C.’s Jens Ludwig, former Ohio rep Steve Latourette, and the Trib’s Steve Chapman, moderated by Tom Brokaw. It’s being livestreamed here, beginning at 7.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune