After a long wait, Illinois’s second district will soon have a representative in Congress. That seat has been vacant since Jesse Jackson Jr. resigned from it in November, and the bizarre politics of gun control may determine who its next occupant will be. As the issue plays out on the national stage in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., it can be seen in microcosm in the Illinois race, where 17 Democrats are fighting for their party’s nomination in advance of a primary set for February 26.
The salience of the gun issue has provided an opportunity for anti-gun activists to target allegedly pro-gun Democrats in their ranks. It has also exerted enormous pressure on erstwhile strong backers of the Second Amendment to fall in line with the party’s left wing. In the Illinois race, they have done so expeditiously.
New York City mayor and anti-gun activist Michael Bloomberg is aiming his fire — at the cost of over a million dollars — at former Illinois representative Debbie Halvorson, who earned an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association during her term in Congress from 2008 to 2010. One of the ads sponsored by Bloomberg’s Independence USA super PAC warns ominously, “Gun violence, it’s out of control. Debbie Halvorson will make it worse.” Another charges, “When it comes to preventing gun violence, she gets an ‘F.’”
Halvorson calls the ads “over the top” and “deplorable,” in part because she has systematically disavowed the positions that earned her that “A” rating. With the exception of an assault-weapons ban, she backs all of the proposals set forth by the president and Democrats in Congress. “I have always said, since running in this primary, that we need universal background checks, we need to end the gun-show loophole,” she tells National Review Online.
Asked about her change of heart, Halvorson offers a curious explanation. Because of redistricting, she says, she now represents a different constituency. “It’s kind of ironic that they’re trying to take my stance from my old district and do what they’re doing,” she says. The second district, which is now majority African American and overwhelmingly Democratic, is more urban as a result of the 2011 redistricting process. In other words, Halvorson’s views on gun regulation seem to have shifted to reflect those of her new constituency.
Halverson also says that her views are “evolving” in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., that took the lives of 20 children and six adults. “There’s a national conversation,” she adds, a growing sentiment that “we have to do something.” Needless to say, she hasn’t sought the NRA’s endorsement this time around.
The views of former Illinois state senator Toi Hutchinson appear to be evolving as well. She earned an “A” rating from the NRA in 2010 for opposing a ban on semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines and supporting the right to carry a concealed weapon. Like Halvorson, she cites the Newtown shooting as the catalyst for a conversion. “When it’s time to move, you need to move,” she told the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board. Hutchinson now supports bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines as well as universal background checks.
Ironically, the gun-control flip-floppers in Illinois’s second congressional district will have one gun owner to thank if they claim victory on the 26th. Their political fortunes markedly improved when the initial front-runner, Illinois state senator Donne Trotter, dropped out following his arrest at Chicago’s O’Hare airport after TSA agents stopped him from trying to board a plane with a .25-caliber Beretta handgun nestled in his carry-on bag. Perhaps not surprisingly, Trotter is a gun-control advocate who opposed legislation in Illinois to legalize carrying concealed weapons.
The latest poll shows Halvorson and Hutchinson trailing front-runner Robin Kelly, who has brandished her “F” rating from the NRA, by single digits. Suffice it to say, in this urban, Democratic Chicago district, the political effects of the Newtown massacre are on display, and they appear to be more about posture than principle.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.