What should Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand do about guns? As a two-term U.S. representative from upstate New York, she had a perfect pro–Second Amendment voting record. A week ago, she admitted to Newsday that she kept two rifles under her bed for family defense. This has not sat well with the gun-prohibition crowd, although when Newsday put the question to a reader vote, 97 percent did not mind her owning guns for this purpose.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence publicly lobbied Governor Paterson not to appoint Gillibrand to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. The New York City media, including of course the Times, have been throwing a hissy fit about her skepticism towards additional gun control.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, of Long Island, the doyenne of anti-gun advocates in the House, vows to challenge Gillibrand in the 2010 primary. A Quinnipiac poll of New York Democrats found that 34 percent said they would support McCarthy and 24 percent Gillibrand, with 39 percent undecided. Should Gillibrand announce that she has changed her mind about gun control?
To a degree, she has already begun doing so. In the last Congress, as a House member, Gillibrand cosponsored a bill to codify the Tiahrt Amendment, an appropriations rider saying that, while gun-trace data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives must be shared with local law enforcement when needed for particular criminal investigations, the data are not a public record that anyone can access.
One intended consequence of this proviso has been that mayors such as Michael Bloomberg of New York City and Richard Daley of Chicago couldn’t get trace data to use in their lawsuits against firearms manufacturers for the expenses incurred in dealing with criminals who use firearms. But Gillibrand now says she won’t support the Tiahrt Amendment again unless it is “fixed” in unspecified ways so that it does not harm law enforcement.
Before she makes further concessions to the gun-prohibition lobby, she might consider what happened to the last politician who caved in to McCarthyism. The 1994 elections were a Republican landslide; afterwards, President Clinton observed that “the NRA is the reason Republicans control the House.” Among the freshman Republicans of the NRA landslide was Dan Frisa of Long Island. He campaigned and won as a pro-Second Amendment candidate.
In the spring of 1996, Frisa voted, along with a large majority of the House, to repeal the 1994 ban on so-called “assault weapons.” Though the anti-gun lobby took pains to characterize “assault weapons” as fully automatic machine guns — ones that fire continuously when you hold down the trigger — they are in fact semi-automatic, firing one shot per trigger pull, like many hunting rifles. The only difference between an “assault rifle” and a semi-automatic hunting rifle is that the former has two or more disapproved cosmetic features, which include a pistol grip, a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor, and a grenade launcher. These features may sound off-putting, but they’re virtually useless to a criminal.
This vote outraged Carolyn McCarthy, a nurse whose husband was one of six people murdered in December 1993 by a black racist on a Long Island Railroad commuter train. The killer had purchased his handgun in California, after passing the state’s background check and after the 15-day waiting period required by state law. McCarthy announced that she would challenge Frisa, and Frisa crumbled. He declared that he had voted to repeal the existing ban only because he actually favored an even more comprehensive ban, and he introduced his own prohibition bill.
Voters could see that McCarthy had a sincere and consistent position on gun control, while Frisa changed his position based on transparent political calculation. Frisa’s flip-flop undoubtedly made voters wonder which of his other supposed convictions he would abandon when it became politically useful. McCarthy crushed him in the general election by 58 to 41 percent. Frisa tried to return to Congress in 1998 but dropped out before the primary election; he tried again in 2002, losing in the primary.
Thanks to the New York media, if there’s one thing that New York voters know about Kirsten Gillibrand, it’s that she’s pro-gun. For most of those voters, the gun issue is not a top priority one way or the other; New York has elected quite a few pro-gun candidates, including Ronald Reagan twice, Sen. Al D’Amato three times, Sen. James Buckley once, and Gov. George Pataki, who ran as a pro-gun candidate and unseated Mario Cuomo in 1994, three times. But the voters’ judgment of a candidate’s character is always a priority — all the more so for swing voters, who tend to be less ideological. In a match-up with anti-gun Republican Rep. Peter King (rated D by the NRA), pro-gun Gillibrand would win by 16 points, according to the Quinnipiac poll.
Reportedly, Sen. Charles Schumer was the strongest advocate in lobbying for Gillibrand’s appointment. Whatever else one might say about Schumer, nobody can call him stupid. He obviously knew that Gillibrand was the only plausible appointment who would not be a reliable vote on his side of gun issues, yet she was his first choice to be his Senate colleague anyway.
The explanation, as usual with Schumer, lies in shrewd political calculation. Schumer is going to be up for reelection on the New York ballot in 2010 alongside Gillibrand. The other prominent statewide Democratic candidates in 2010 will probably be Gov. David Paterson and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, both seeking reelection (though Cuomo may well challenge Paterson in a primary), and both from New York City. As Brooklyn native Schumer knows, you don’t win a statewide election just with people in New York City and Long Island; you also need to attract voters who live on the mainland. Gillibrand, with her moderate image (she won election to the House from a strongly Republican district), could balance out the Democratic ticket both geographically and ideologically — unlike Representative McCarthy.
Thinking strategically, Senate majority leader Harry Reid may decide to keep gun control off the Senate agenda in the next two years. After all, there’s no reason to give McCarthy and her media allies primary ammunition. If Gillibrand has to buckle to McCarthyist pressure in the primary, she will weaken herself in the general election, perhaps ruining the reputation she has worked hard to cultivate as an independent Democrat who doesn’t dance to the tune of the downstate elites.
Another test of Gillibrand’s principles is coming up. She has vowed to introduce legislation named for Nyasia Pryear, a teenager killed during a gang shoot-out in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in January. She says the bill will be part of her focus on fighting illegal gun traffickers and gun violence. Depending on its wording, the bill might apply only to illegal gun trafficking and gun violence, or it could restrict law-abiding gun owners too. The former approach will appeal to voters concerned with a candidate’s personal integrity and reliable consistency, while the latter will appeal to the media and Democratic activists.
But nothing that Gillibrand does is likely to satisfy McCarthy. In her speech accepting the Senate appointment, Gillibrand promised to work with Representative McCarthy to improve background checks, an offer that McCarthy scornfully dismissed.
Nobody knows what the 2010 election climate will be like, but we do know that it’s rare for a party to win three cycles in a row. We also know the incumbent president’s party usually has a rough time in an off-year election. What if the worst fears of the Democrats come true, the economy continues to get worse, and 2010 becomes as bad as the wipeout of 1994?
In that catastrophic year, there was one type of incumbent Democrat that won every single race for Congress: Democrats who were endorsed by the National Rifle Association. Senator Gillibrand, take notice.
– Dave Kopel is director of research at the Independence Institute.