Gays, God, But Not Guns — How Culture War Politics Has Changed And How It Hasn’t

Back in the late 1990s, social issues were the GOP’s raison d’être.

With the economy thriving, Republicans famously kept their political footing by fighting Democrats over God, guns and gays. Immigration was a winning issue for the GOP too. The list went on.

Fifteen years later, the dynamic has almost completely reversed. Two years ago, Republicans were playing footsie with the idea of amending the Constitution to deny citizenship to the children of unauthorized immigrants U.S. Today, five months after President Obama’s re-election, they’re coalescing around legislation that could ultimately turn 11 million immigrants into voters.

Obama’s victory was likewise the bellow that triggered an avalanche of political support for marriage equality.

But when it comes to guns, things don’t look much different than they did just over a decade ago. In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, elected officials still lie in paralytic fear of the NRA. And supporters of new gun regulations are taking a close look at what makes their issue immune to the demographic and cultural phenomena that have seemingly changed the politics of gay rights, immigration, and other issues forever.Jim Kessler served as legislative director for Chuck Schumer in both the House and Senate during past congressional debates about gun control, and went on to cofound the messaging and policy group Third Way, where he now serves as Senior Vice President for Policy.

In an interview, he explained why gun control is an almost taxonomically different kind of issue. Unlike other social issues, opinions on guns vary geographically in a dramatic way; and the marriage equality and immigration reform fights, unlike gun control, are about providing new, tangible rights to large segments of the population, they are by nature easier issues to organize political movements around.

“There’s just very regional differences in this country when it comes to guns, whether they make you a safer person or a more dangerous person, or a safer community or more dangerous community,” he told me. “In January of this year there were 44 murders in the city of Chicago. In North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, there were 40 gun homicides combined. So there’s a very, very different conception of how safe it is where we are and how dangerous it is where we are.”

Universal background checks may enjoy overwhelming support across the country, but gun owners and sympathizers in rural states with little gun crime are less animated by the idea — which means politicians can’t count on them to offset the backlash from high-intensity pro-gun voters.

This phenomenon translates into a huge legislative. These six rural states have 12 senators between them. Illinois has two.

“The passion is the same on both sides,” Kessler said. “But it more geographically distributed on the gun rights side, and geographically concentrated on the gun safety side.”

Moreover, unlike gun safety advocates, same sex marriage supporters, as well as advocates of a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, are making concrete asks for growing and organized segments of the population.

Supporters of these issues have also benefited from the passage of time, and political miscues by opponents.

“Demographics don’t change cultural perception in a decade or less,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

As recently as a few years ago, gay rights were still a losing political issue. Ornstein recalls a backlash in Vermont — perhaps the most liberal state in the country — after it adopted civil unions.

“There was an element of this where I was wrong when I first saw it, but I come to believe made a difference,” he said in an interview. “Gavin Newsom started performing gay marriages on the steps of City Hall. I thought this is grandstanding, it’s going to create a backlash, he’s moving too fast. But I think the first marriage was two 80 year old women who’d been together for 60 years. When you see that…it’s not like somehow heterosexual marriage was dealt a body blow, or anything happen other than that our friends and neighbors living happily.”

Moreover, people in same sex relationships, and unauthorized immigrants who’ve been living and working in the country for years, are asking the public to provide them with new rights, derived from some of the most conservative American traditions, that come at no cost to the public welfare.

Gun safety advocates face a much different dynamic.

“The NRA has done a very good job of convincing a vocal segment of gun owners, that new laws means they have to give something up,” Kessler said. “They’ve sold that narrative very very well, and they’ve elevated their membership to believe that they’re the bulwark that’s protecting this right…. What the other side is getting is safety, and the question is how tangible is that.”

On gay rights, for instance, “Voters go on a journey but it’s a one way journey,” Kessler says. “First you become more tolerant of gay people, then more accepting, then you have seamless relationships with them. And it goes one way. Once you support same-sex marriage you’re not going to go back. If you’re evolving on that issue you’re evolving in one direction. I think immigration is the same way. On guns, people vacillate.”