Gun Politics and the Colorado Recall: 4 Blunt Points

Voters casting ballots in Pueblo, Colo., during the vote to recall Democratic State Senator Giron Photograph by Brennan Linsley/AP Photo

The National Rifle Association won a startling victory when Colorado voters ousted their state Senate president and a second lawmaker for having backed modest new gun-control measures. Let’s take stock.

1. The recall of state Senate Leader John Morse and Senator Angela Giron, both Democrats, clarifies why politicians in generally pro-gun states fear the NRA.

The firearm-rights group knows how to mobilize on the ground. The NRA does not have all politicians mesmerized. It can’t tilt a local election or a race for Congress in New York or Los Angeles. What it can do is get voters to the polls where most people already believe there’s nothing wrong with lawfully owning a few firearms. That’s Colorado. Voters, the NRA said in a statement, “sent a clear message to their elected officials that their primary job is to defend our rights and freedoms and that they are accountable to their constituents—not the dollars or social engineering agendas of anti-gun billionaires.”

2. The Colorado vote isn’t likely to intimidate that “anti-gun billionaire.”

This one’s a little awkward because the man in question, outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founded and majority-owns the company that, in turn, owns Bloomberg Businessweek. He gave $350,000 to try to keep Morse and Giron in office. The NRA spent even more than Bloomberg, but overall, pro-gun-control activists raised a total of about $3 million, a greater sum than backers of the recall marshaled. And that seems fine with the Bloomberg forces, which vow to continue to put the mayor’s money where his mouth is on this issue. “I think the NRA walked away with an important lesson and that is that these kinds of recalls to kick legislators out of office are not going to be cheap and easy anymore,” said Mark Glaze, executive director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group Bloomberg co-founded and helps to finance. “They have to spend every dime they have and pull out the stops and we’re going to be matching them every step of the way.” In other words, the battle is on—nationwide.

3. Liberals will lose that battle if they fight with cultural condescension.

I had a sense that gun-control forces would suffer in Colorado when Morse, a former police chief, delivered an emotional speech in March on the state Senate floor. He linked firearm restrictions to “cleansing a sickness from our souls.” That kind of argument will never persuade law-abiding gun owners. It signals that behind mild-sounding curbs lies a larger agenda aimed at forcing people to abandon their core values. Even in the wake of school shootings and movie-theater massacres, it’s a disastrous formula for advocates of greater regulation. The burden on such advocates is to convince voters why given legislative proposals would keep guns out of the hands of criminals, madmen, and children. In pro-gun precincts, the NRA wins a culture war.

4. The recalls should not stop national debate over the kind of laws Colorado voters passed.

The provisions at issue do not seriously encroach on Second Amendment rights, no matter what the NRA says. Read the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller ruling striking down Washington, D.C.’s local handgun ban. That decision and a similar one in 2010 involving a ban in Chicago leave plenty of room for less-sweeping restrictions. Colorado enacted a requirement that “private” gun sales should be subjected to background checks, just as sales by federally licensed dealers already are. That’s an idea that the NRA itself supported as recently as 1999. Today a far more extreme NRA warns that comprehensive background checks intended to screen out felons and the insane would hasten national gun registration and even confiscation. That’s a slippery slope scare tactic that gun-control backers can defuse by forswearing national gun registration and confiscation.

Colorado also limited the size of ammunition magazines to 15 rounds. That’s a more symbolic gesture, and it’s one I can’t get too excited about, one way or the other. In theory, a magazine curb would marginally inhibit a maniacal mass shooter by making him reload more often, possibly allowing a hero to intervene. On the other hand, such a restriction could inhibit a homeowner acting in self defense. Given the countervailing interests and the fact that reloading with a fresh magazine takes only a second or two, I see a 15-round limit as an acceptable compromise. Others may disagree. Proposed as way of cleansing souls, however—rather than as an anti-crime measure—the magazine rule seems like a political loser.

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