Assault Weapons Ban: Democrats Need Better Messaging to Pass the Bill

I feel that there are three ways to view policy: what is objectively right or wrong, what is legally or structurally possible, and what is in line with public opinion or the perception of other relevant actors in the system of governance. The first, then, is philosophy, the second is law, and the third is politics.

This post will only concern politics, which Democrats generally haven’t done well at the national level since Bill Clinton left the presidency. However, right now should be a Democratic golden era.

The Democrats recently affirmed their control over the presidency and the Senate. The House is a bit more difficult for Democrats, as gerrymandering has resulted in the Democrats needing over 7% more votes than the Republicans nationally in order to control the House.

The nation’s changing views on gay marriage benefits the Democrats and the nation’s changing demographics looks to do the same, too. Issues like immigration reform and the DREAM Act have begun to push a majority of Latinos into the Democratic camp, shown by Obama’s win of the Latino vote this past fall. Even the fiscal cliff — in the economic realm of policy where Republicans are most often trusted — has gone the way of the Democrats, as far as politics is concerned. That’s because a majority of Americans blame the Republicans for the mess in the first place. This is of course reminiscent of the 1995 government shutdown, which was ultimately also blamed on the Republicans by the American people.

In theory, Democrats have also been dealt an easy hand on gun control. The recent tragedies of gun violence have led to both knee-jerk reactions and honest reflection on the legal status of guns in our country. Real politics is insensitive and dirty and so the debate has shifted in favor of those arguing for gun control. Politics is about perception, so in this post, the actual content of Senator Feinstein’s Assault Weapons Ban is of little import — just as the content of, say, the USA PATRIOT Act was not important at the time of passage. In politics, what’s only important is what the American people think the law stands for. We’ll let the lawyers and philosophers decide what’s right and wrong or what can or cannot be done.

What the Democrats must do is convince the American people that this piece of legislation both protects their children from future gun violence while allowing responsible gun owners to continue to have their Second Amendment rights. Their first problem is the name used in the media. The "PATRIOT Act" is positive and affirming. The "Assault Weapons Ban" is negative and brings forth images of Pelosi and Feinstein taking guns away from people. However, since it uses the term "Assault Weapon," it can succeed if framed properly.

Congressional Democrats better read PolicyMic because here are their keys to political victory: only say two phrases when discussing either this piece of legislation or gun control in general. "We want to protect the American people and our children from gun violence," and "We support the Second Amendment rights of responsible gun owners." That’s it.

This debate is the Democrat’s to lose, and complicating the message will only make the party look divided and unsure of where it stands. The Democratic Party doesn’t need to convince the National Rifle Association about gun control, only those on the fence or undecided about the issue. Those individuals can give the Democrats the political clout on this important issue. 

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Ryan J. Suto

I'm a Penn State (B.A., B.A. '08) & Syracuse (M.A., M.S., J.D. '13) alumnus. I mainly think about topics such as law, public diplomacy, media, elections, the Middle East, and democracy.

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