Don’t Let Conventional Wisdom Kill Again
Grief at an Orlando vigil. Caleb McGrew, right, wipes tears as he stands with his partner Yosniel Delgado Giniebra, center, during a vigil in Miami Beach, Fla. Lynne Sladky / AP Photo (source; click to enlarge)
by Gaius Publius
The Orlando killing is uniquely at the intersection of gun violence, anti-gay violence and anti-immigrant violence (it was Latin night at the club, and 90% of the victims were Hispanic).
Long-time writer and DC activist Joe Sudbay is also uniquely at that intersection, as you'll read. Sudbay has a long professional history of working with the Brady campaign against gun violence, with the anti-DOMA movement and other LGBTQ initiatives, and with the immigration reform movement.
From all of this experience, Sudbay has both a unique perspective and professional advice for those engaged in defeating the NRA, as the conversation turns from the horror of the act itself, to reform. With permission, here's Sudbay's recent piece from Medium in its entirety. Please read it if you have a few minutes. There's something here you won't find many other places — lessons from the winning battle for LGBTQ rights that could easily be applied to the NRA-led battle. But only if DC activists want to apply them.
As I watch the tragic, horrific events unfold in Orlando, I’m sick. I can’t stop looking at the faces and reading stories of the victims. I don’t know them, but I do. They’re my community.I've spoken publicly with Joe Sudbay about how the LGBT movement won during the Obama administration when many other progressive initiatives were stalled. That interview is here, if you're interested in his other thoughts on routes to progressive victory.
For the past twenty five years, I’ve worked on a range of issues that intersect with what happened in Orlando: gun violence prevention, immigration reform and LGBT equality. The biggest impediment to progress on all three issues was one of the most odious features of inside-the-beltway think: conventional wisdom.
Fortunately, on immigration and LGBT equality, that DC thinking has been shattered. To me, nothing exemplifies the change on marriage equality more than the photo I included above of the White House bathed in the rainbow flag. But, that’s still not true on gun control — and it haunts me.
One of the biggest myths that has yet to be broken is that the NRA is invincible. It’s not true. Never has been. But, it’s etched in stone in DC, particularly among the chattering class made of pundits and consultants.
To understand how to break the conventional wisdom on guns, it’s important to understand that it’s based on a lie.
Ask any almost any Democratic insider and they’ll tell you, Al Gore lost because of the NRA. That is so far from the truth — but, after Gore finally lost in 2000, it became dogma, spurred on by none other than Bill Clinton (who may have played a small role in why Gore lost). Since that time, the gun issue was radioactive and candidates were told to avoid it at all cost.
I had a front row seat to the 2000 election from my perch at what was then Handgun Control Inc. As director of state legislation, I’d watched George W. Bush fulfill the NRA’s wish list as Governor of Texas. In 1995, he signed a law that let citizens carry concealed guns in public for the first time in 125 years. Two years later, he signed a law to weaken restrictions on that law, to allow carrying in churches, nurses homes and amusement parks. He was giving us plenty of issues to work with when he ran for President.
Let’s look at Florida and Missouri, two key battleground states where we had record to show our issues worked with voters. On both issues, Bush was on wrong side.
In 1998, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment to allow counties to enact background checks at gun shows by an astounding margin of 72–28 percent. The following weekend, President Clinton hailed this progress in his radio address.
In spring of 1999, the NRA-backed ballot measure in Missouri was defeated 52–48, despite massive spending by NRA on a date the group hand-picked, expecting low turnout. It was a huge upset. Our side secured over 80% of the vote in suburbs around St. Louis County.
See, the NRA controls elected officials in most State Houses and certainly in Congress, but when the public actually votes on issues, our side usually prevails.
During the 2000 Democratic primary against Bill Bradley, Al Gore ran as a hard-core supporter of gun control. He even tried to secure an endorsement from my boss, Sarah Brady. One of his top aides called me screaming because the organization had vowed not to endorse in the primary. Gore was an ally. The year before, he cast the tie vote on a bill to close the gun-show loophole in the wake of Columbine. That was back in the days when the Senate actually took votes.
When President Clinton renamed the White House press briefing room for Jim Brady, I wrote Jim’s speech to include praise for Gore casting that vote to break the tie. A couple days later, those remarks were in a Gore ad in California.
But, a funny thing happened after Gore got the nomination. He stopped talking about guns. His silence was deafening — and bad politics. Instead of reminding voters about Bush’s record, Gore wanted to avoid the issue. Interestingly, so did Bush, who didn’t even accept the NRA’s endorsement in 2000. It was like Bush was reading the same polls we were, but Gore wasn’t.
Meanwhile Democratic Senate candidates in both Missouri, Mel Carnahan, and Florida, Bill Nelson, leaned in hard on gun issue. Handgun Control’s PAC did independent expenditures in both states, as well as Michigan and Washington.
At final presidential debate, held in St. Louis, the day after Mel Carnahan’s tragic death, Bush was asked a question about a t.v. ad I had created which showed NRA VP saying if Bush won, “we’ll have . . . a president where we work out of their office.” Bush tried to distance himself from the NRA, touting some pro-gun control positions after stating, “I think somebody who doesn’t want me to be president might have run that ad.” When Gore was up, instead of invoking the referendum the year before and how Bush signed something similar in Texas, he mumbled some rote lines about guns, then switched the subject.
A couple days later, the Washington Post reported that the gun issue was dead for Democrats. I was extremely frustrated that I was quoted in the article but hadn’t been interviewed for that specific piece. One of the reporters used a quote from a previous interviews. A couple days later, I did an off-the-record interview with Jake Tapper who was writing at Salon about how inept the Gore campaign was on the gun issue. They didn’t lean in. They ran.
On election day in 2000, Democrats picked up 5 Senate seats. In each race, guns was an issue and the Democrat who won leaned in. But, that story barely got told. All eyes were on Florida, where Gore never talked about the gun show issue, which got 72% two years earlier. He lost and lost the presidency.
Then, the blame started and convention wisdom took hold.
Over the past two decades, I watched politicians who took on the NRA and the gun issue — and won. And, I watched politicians who thought they could ignore the NRA — and lost. The latter is always what gets held up as truth. And, once something becomes conventional wisdom, it’s very hard to change. One of the reasons I started blogging in November of 2004 was to fight back against the idea that John Kerry lost because of the gay marriage referenda.
So, as we consider what to do moving forward in the wake of the worst shooting in American history, here’s a key thing to know: Al Gore didn’t lose because of the NRA. He lost because he ran from the gun issue instead of owning his record. The NRA capitalized on that thinking and for that past 15 years has run amok. That group and the politicians who kneel as the gun lobby’s altar give us a nation where 49 people can be mowed down. But, we all have a part in it for letting our politicians be controlled by them.
When I worked on the gun issue, I met the most amazing people who I only met because the worst possible tragedy struck their family in the form of gun violence. I hold them in my heart every day — just as I’ve now made space for the 49 people lost in Orlando. We have to be better than this.
Conventional wisdom is an ugly creature. But on guns, it’s actually deadly.
I want to close, though, with a simple idea from Sudbay's last paragraphs:
Al Gore didn’t lose because of the NRA. He lost because he ran from the gun issue instead of owning his record. ... We have to be better than this.