Will Guns Help Settle The 2014 Midterms?

Judging by the numbers of them in the hands of candidates this season, guns are the most potent political weapons—but it's always been this way.

Alison Lundergan Grimes shoots skeet in a campaign video.


The fight over gun control isn’t finished. Last month's school shooting in Washington appears to have solidified support for a ballot initiative in the state calling for stricter background checks on gun buyers. It’s also an issue in the Colorado gubernatorial race, where a mass shooting in a theater led to stricter gun-control legislation.

In Georgia, a Democratic incumbent brandishes his grandfather's revolver and his own concealed carry permit and avers, "you never really need a gun, unless you need it bad." The National Rifle Association has deployed millions of dollars in advertising in the fall campaigns, while Everytown for Gun Safety, a new coalition launched by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of of Bloomberg Politics parent company Bloomberg LP, has endorsed scores of candidates and financed television ads of its own. And in the last weeks of the campaign, reports emerged that Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst of Iowa in 2012 told an NRA gathering that she believed "in the right to defend myself and my family—whether it’s from an intruder, or whether it’s from the government." It's a blunt reminder of one of the most fervently held, and divisive, views of the meaning of the Second Amendment.

But to watch some candidates’ television ads, you wouldn't think guns are even remotely controversial. In one, Ernst drills a bull’s-eye dead center, then asks voters to “give me a shot.” Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes whacked clay pigeons in the farm fields of Kentucky. Dan Sullivan, running for U.S. Senate in Alaska, shot a TV, while an unsuccessful congressional candidate in Montana appeared to blast a drone hovering overhead.   

These ads largely skirt the most emotional issues surrounding guns, and for the most part, any opposition to gun control is implied, not overt. When Joe Manchin of West Virginia loaded a rifle and shot a copy of the cap and trade bill in a much-discussed 2010 ad, he used a bolt-action hunting rifle, not a high-capacity military-style weapon. Ernst fires a handgun, but she was filmed at a formal target range and aims at a circular target, not a man’s silhouette or a drawing of a threatening criminal. And her campaign points out that she qualified to shoot pistols in the Army and has a concealed-carry permit for her Smith & Wesson. 

 “They’re trying to communicate something to the voter about the candidate and their stance on the Second Amendment,” said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group based in Newtown, Conn.

But that’s not all. As props, guns convey many things. A Kentucky long rifle, held high by Mitch McConnell, evokes the pioneer spirit of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, himself a member of Congress before that nasty business down in San Antonio. A black military-style rifle capable of holding 20 cartridges becomes a symbol of murder and war, a suggestion that the "gun culture" has gone too far—even if that rifle fires ammunition that is far less potent than the deer rifles commonly sold at Wal-Mart.

And the gun’s constituencies, both pro and con, are surprisingly varied. There are plenty of voters who don't feel strongly about handguns or high-capacity rifles but enjoy shooting targets or following a dog through a grassy field on a November morning. Or they may not own guns themselves but remember fondly a grandfather who did.

Those are the voters targeted by some of the ads, in a subtler appeal. Watch the ads and you see khaki vests and blue jeans, ponytails instead of coiffures and—if the politician's handlers are particularly savvy—an American-made, workaday gun. Forget the Italian, British, or German firearms favored by the most passionate shooters—they're just not good optics. And a shotgun in the hand of a politician dressed in newish camouflage is an unspoken covenant, a wink and nod that their opposition to some kinds of guns is reasonable and that regular folks who just like to shoot or hunt have nothing to fear.

Candidates “have got to do some bonafides to demonstrate that they understand the culture that’s proud of gun ownership and hunting, and being outdoors,” said Mike McCurry, former press secretary to President Bill Clinton who’s now a Washington-based communications consultant. “It’s a real difficult line to walk, because anything that strays from the orthodoxy of the Second Amendment gets an immediate response from the NRA.”

The other problem is that it's exceedingly hard to fake it, as many a politician has found out. During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry broke clay targets, hunted geese in Ohio, and even shot a couple pheasants in front of reporters in Iowa. As a decorated war veteran, he knew something about guns. But when he told a Wisconsin reporter that he loved to hunt deer, and would “crawl on (his) stomach” while tracking them with his “trusty 12 gauge,” many deer hunters, who tend to lurk in trees, staying very still, guffawed.

“John Kerry is the quintessential example,” Keane said. “It’s the goose hunt that cooked him. Someone else carried the goose that was his and he allegedly shot. He got roasted pretty severely for that.”

McCurry, who worked for Kerry toward the end of that campaign, acknowledged that the visuals of that event “just didn’t look authentic, even though it was accurate and Kerry has gone bird hunting. … Reporters rolled their eyes, and I was laboring mightily to explain that he had a history of being a hunter. Though it would suffice to say that in the parlors of Georgetown, it’s not what you would hear is his favorite recreational pastime.”

Bill Clinton, who grew up near some of the nation’s finest duck hunting in Arkansas, went out at least a couple times as president as part of a campaign to persuade hunters that he wasn’t after their guns. After one hunt, Clinton’s host swore that the president had killed the only two ducks the party had shot that morning, at a distance of 70 to 80 yards—a superhuman shot even for an experienced hunter, much more liable to wound than kill. The story left a residue of doubt.

More recently, when the White House released a picture of Barack Obama shooting clay targets at Camp David, the blogosphere pounced. Among the criticisms: Obama’s stance (he seemed to be leaning backward rather than slightly forward, as experienced shooters do), the way he held the gun (level to the ground, as opposed to angled up or down), even the way smoke spurted from the shotgun’s barrel. Obama never claimed to be an expert, but some concluded—without proof—that the picture had been Photoshopped.

“I don’t know why politicians keep doing it, but they do,” Keane said. “They ought to be honest and say, ‘I don’t hunt myself, but …’”

It’s part of a divide that has further contributed to the polarization of politics. Urban-based politicians, confronted with headlines about gun violence, are compelled to respond, while rural residents see gun legislation as an attack on their way of life. For his cousins in rural South Carolina, “it’s an issue of cultural respect,” McCurry said. “They think that those who are keen on curbs on guns just don’t get who they are and just don’t get the culture in which they’ve been raised.”

A gunshot is an essential note in America’s mystic chord of memory. Hunting was part of this country's original lifestyle, necessary to eat, and shooting was a core competence, common to farmers and presidents, who often were one and the same. Thomas Jefferson, writing to a nephew, recommended “the gun” as the best form of exercise because it gave “boldness, enterprize (sic) and independance (sic) to the mind.” Jefferson also had a pair of Turkish pistols that he claimed never missed a squirrel inside of 30 yards—he was neither the first nor certainly the last shooter to do a little bragging.

And of course guns were useful for settling arguments: Andrew Jackson killed a man in a duel before becoming president, and in 1804 Aaron Burr infamously plugged Alexander Hamilton, becoming the only sitting vice president to shoot a man until Dick Cheney came along.

Until the mid-20th Century, bag limits on game were non-existent, or so liberal that they seem repugnant today. Even presidents availed themselves of the nearly unlimited opportunities. Teddy Roosevelt and his son, Kermit, whittled down hundreds of big game animals during an African safari shortly after Roosevelt left office, sending specimens to the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History for display. But Roosevelt was also an ardent conservationist with scruples. He once refused to shoot a bear that had been tied to a tree—inspiring a toymaker to create a stuffed “Teddy’s Bear.”

Roosevelt even sent testimonials to gun makers, telling one that his new shotgun was “the most beautiful gun I have ever seen.” Soon enough, his picture and letter were part of the manufacturer’s advertising.

LBJ took visitors deer hunting on his ranch (though it is a matter of dispute whether John F. Kennedy enjoyed himself). Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed hunting and shooting so much that he had a skeet field installed at Camp David—later the backdrop for Obama’s photo op.

Both Presidents Bush hunted dove and quail, and Jimmy Carter’s “An Outdoor Journal” is an eloquent memoir of his passions for fly fishing and bird hunting. Special-order firearms once were common gifts for politicians; Ike’s double-barreled Winchester shotgun, engraved with his initials and five-star general's badge, is on display at the NRA museum in Springfield, Mo.

It was in the 1960s that gun ownership and hunting became a battleground of the cultural wars. As rural populations dwindled, fewer Americans saw firearms as everyday tools; burgeoning urban populations rightfully worried about rising crime. An unpopular war and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King eroded public opinion further.

In 1968, Johnson signed one of the most sweeping gun-control laws passed by the federal government, and in succeeding years the opposing stances hardened. The National Rifle Association morphed from an organization dedicated to promoting safe gun handling and marksmanship to a political juggernaut that spends millions on lobbying and campaign advertising. NRA membership was once a bipartisan expediency for politicians including JFK; by 1995, George H.W. Bush resigned his life membership after the association sent out a fundraising letter describing federal agents as “jack-booted thugs.” It was an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, himself an NRA member, that launched the Brady Bill and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Though it hasn’t seemed like it in many of the most contested Senate races this year, there are actually signs of moderation. The locavore movement has prompted even city folk to pick up a gun and shoot their supper, to the point that the number of hunters in the U.S. may actually be increasing after years of decline. Celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern routinely hunts and cooks his prey on his Travel Channel show "Bizarre Foods America," a far cry from the usual cast-and-blast routine on Saturday-morning outdoor shows. Few blinked when Paul Ryan made a point of bringing up his love of deer hunting during the 2012 presidential campaign, though it’s unlikely that any politician will ever again pose with a dead elephant, as Roosevelt eagerly did. Even King Juan Carlos of Spain was forced to apologize after shooting an elephant on a Botswana safari two years ago. “I made a mistake,” he said. “It won’t happen again.”

But politicians will almost certainly keep on using guns as props, and since fall overlaps with hunting season, you can expect to see them wearing blaze orange in the fields of blue and red states every two years into the indefinite future. “They know there’s a culture out there for which this is an important part of American tradition, and it’s an attempt to connect with that,” McCurry said. “And they go to some lengths to create a visual that will work. If they take it too far, and it’s not genuine, they run into a charge of hypocrisy."

“I would not,” he added, “expect Rahm Emanuel to go out duck hunting.”