According to BuzzFeed, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has just unveiled his own gun control proposal. In seeking to toughen the gun laws in the Garden State, Christie is following in the footsteps of other Northern governors who already pushed for tougher gun legislation.
The BuzzFeed article indicated that many Republican strategists are dismayed by Christie's willingness to embrace tougher gun laws. Those strategists think that those proposals would hurt Christie in a Republican presidential primary.
Unlike some other states where gun laws are lax, New Jersey already has some of the stringent gun laws in the country. In fact, in 2011, the Brady Campaign, an organization that advocates for stronger gun laws, placed the Garden State second only to California when it comes to states with tough gun laws. The question that arises, then, is the following: Why would an astute politician like Christie support new legislation that would strengthen the Garden State's already strong gun laws. The answer is simple. After the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary, it is increasingly becoming a political liability for statewide office holders in the Northern part of the country to oppose common sense measures that would strengthen gun control.
In 2000, after Vice President Al Gore lost Tennessee, his home state, in his bid for the presidency, many political commentators attributed that loss for his support of gun control. In the ensuing years, Democratic leaders tended to avoid the issue. The public's support for gun control also ebbed during those years. The Democrats' avoidance of gun control did not change after Barack Obama got elected in 2008. Although there were many mass shootings during his first term, President Obama did not try to enact any gun control measures.
The tragedy that occurred on December 14, 2012, shattered that complacency. Adam Lanza, only 20 years-old and a former student at Sandy Hook elementary, fired more than 100 bullets as he executed 20 kids, who were between six and seven years of age as well as six other adults at the school. In the wake of this carnage, the high level of support for tougher gun laws has changed the politics of gun control.
The president's support for stronger gun control measures coupled with the advocacy of the families of the victims put pressure on lawmakers to pass tougher gun control legislation. This pressure encouraged Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) to craft a compromised bill on background check that could pass Congress.
Although 94% of Americans support background check, Republican Senators filibustered the bill. These senators blocked the bill because the National Rifle Association (NRA) strongly opposed any gun control measures. In spite of opposition from Republican lawmakers and the NRA, 83% of Republican voters and 74% of NRA members support background check. By defeating the bill, a minority of Senators, made up mostly of Republicans, stood in the way of what a majority of Senators and the public wanted to see happen.
For more than a decade, the political calculus is that it is safer politically to vote against gun control measures. The decision by Republicans to filibuster the bill seemed to be a nod toward that received political wisdom. But this political wisdom regarding gun control might not be as congealed as many politicos once thought; at least it may no longer be the case when it comes to Northern states.
After the bill was filibustered by Republican senators, the defeat has impacted two Republican Senators who represent Northern states in a different way. Toomey, who was a cosponsor of the background check bill, saw a jump in his poll numbers. On the other hand, Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) is facing a backlash as a result of her vote against the background check bill. Following her no-vote, Ayotte's approval rating fell 15 points. In addition, a majority of moderate voters said that they are less likely to support her reelection because of that vote.
Most Republican Senators who voted against the background check bill might not pay any political price. The politics of gun control, however, seem to be playing out differently in the North. Voters in this region appear more likely to be antagonized by the perceived inaction of their lawmakers on gun control. It is why that Toomey, a staunch conservative whom the NRA gives an A rating for his pro-gun record, decided to support some background check. It is why that Senator Ayotte's approval rating has plunged after voting against background check. Last but not least, it is the reason why that Christie, though highly popular, feels obligated to support more gun control measures even though New Jersey already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country. Henceforth, if Republicans want to be more competitive in the North, it is likely that they will need to abandon their blind allegiance to the NRA.