Two weeks ago, the Washington Post declared the recall elections of two powerful state senators in Colorado a national “referendum on guns.” Indeed, the defeat of state-senate president John Morse and fellow state senator Angela Giron will cause some Democrats to rethink their push on gun control.
But of course, many Democrats have reacted by shrugging off the results. Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz has dismissed the losses as the result of “voter suppression, pure and simple” (orchestrated by the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers, of course). Mark Glaze, executive director of Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, predicted that the victory by gun owners would be short-lived at best and that gun-control legislators would take comfort in knowing that his group “will have their back.”
In reality, it is hard not to appreciate what was accomplished. The difficulties facing the recall were overwhelming:
Both state-senate districts were overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2012, President Obama carried Morse’s district by 21 percentage points and Giron’s by 19 points.
These were the first recalls of legislators in Colorado history. Nationally, recalls of state legislators, particularly state legislative leaders, has been very difficult. Morse and Giron were only the 37th and 38th state legislators in U.S. history to face recall votes (before this vote, precisely half the efforts had succeeded). Prior to Morse, there had only been four recall elections against legislative leaders, and the legislative leader was retained in three of those four races. Giron was also a powerful senator, serving as vice chairman of the very important, especially for her rural district, Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Energy Committee.
Not only did getting a recall on the ballot require a number of signatures amounting to 25 percent of all the votes in the previous election, but the Democrats didn’t take even that battle lying down. During the signature-gathering effort, recall proponents were outspent by the groups backed by billionaire Mayor Bloomberg that went in earlier with ads to discourage signature gathering.
In their last races for the state senate, in 2010, Morse raised $163,972 and Giron $68,710. By the last filing for the recall, on August 29, Morse had raised $658,230 and Giron $825,400. While the NRA had donated $361,700, just two billionaires, Bloomberg and Eli Broad, donated a total of $600,000 between them. Left-wing organizations such as the Daily Kos and MoveOn.org continually bombarded their members with requests for money. Of the $3.5 million spent on the recall election, almost $3 million came from its opponents.
Despite all that, the two Democratic state senators were decisively defeated. Morse’s race was close, with him losing by only two percentage points. But Giron was demolished by twelve points.
The votes weren’t about some abstract idea. As part of its gun-control push this spring, the Obama administration made the extremely unusual move of lobbying Colorado’s governor and its state legislators. If they could show that strict gun control could be passed in a western state such as Colorado, the administration thought, they could get it passed anyplace. The Colorado bills, like the ones in every place from Connecticut to New York to Maryland to California, had one central goal: to reduce gun ownership by making it costly to own guns.
In Colorado, one new law charges people a transfer fee whenever they obtain a gun. Democrats voted down Republican amendments that would have capped the fee and exempted people below the poverty level from paying it. How many other taxes or fees would Democrats refuse to exempt the poor from paying?
Democrats feel that the struggle to reduce gun ownership is important for a simple reason: The issue that most divides conservatives and liberals is not taxes, not abortion, but gun control. Liberals trust government to make decisions, while conservatives tend to trust individuals. Letting people possess weapons is the ultimate form of trust in individuals. Democrats also know that gun ownership and familiarity with firearms go a long way toward determining how people feel about gun control. Democrats may believe that gun control enhances safety, but they also believe that it will weaken Republicans and conservatism in the long run.
It wasn’t just gun-owner groups that cautioned Democrats about these bills. Colorado state senator Lois Tochtrop warned her fellow Democrats by saying, “I feel like all these gun bills have done — to quote the last words in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! — is to awaken a sleeping giant.”
— John R. Lott Jr. is the author of the new book Dumbing Down the Courts: How Politics Keeps the Smartest Judges off the Bench. He is also the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center.