President Obama’s executive crackdown on firearms purchases could prove to be a heavy drag on the Democratic Party’s hopes to hold on to the White House while potentially boosting Republican Donald Trump, according to political experts.
Obama on Tuesday announced his long-awaited action on gun regulations. He vowed to expand the definition of a gun dealer to require occasional sellers to obtain federal firearms licenses. He also called for more gun research, and said he would encourage more domestic violence prosecutions and better tracking of lost guns.
These are moves that Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton not only supports but has called for during the campaign. Dave Kopel, research director at the Denver-based Independence Institute, said that might be smart politics for Clinton’s attempts to position herself to the left of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who hails from a state where guns are popular and has had to take pro-Second amendment stances. But Kopel predicted it will be “very unpopular in the fall.”
Whoever the Republican candidate is, he or she will no doubt remind voters incessantly what’s at stake in the election — the very right to bear arms. It could have an effect in swing states and Democratic leaning states where gun ownership is relatively high, like Nevada, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Gun control opponents said the Democratic Party had gone down this road before — to its detriment.
“I don’t understand how Democrats think,” said Larry Pratt, president of Gun Owners of America.
Pratt predicted the issue will hurt Clinton in the fall, assuming she is the Democratic standard-bearer. He noted that Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, attributed his party’s 1994 midterm congressional losses to the assault weapons ban that passed during his first term.
Although polls have shown public support for some individual gun regulations, voters generally have been hostile to gun control as a concept. What’s more, gun control opponents historically have been better organized, better funded and more motivated than groups favoring tighter controls.
Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, suggested to Politico that the issue could prove perilous for Democrats.
“Over the years a lot of smart strategists can point to a lot of people who have lost elections over gun control,” he said.
Trump, who has managed to dominate media coverage on every issue, attacked Obama’s plan with the kind of vivid rhetoric that has become his trademark. His fervid response could propel him even higher in the polls. What’s more, Trump’s base of support is among voters fearing the kind of changes Obama is enacting — the very voters most likely to be outraged and frightened at prospect of losing gun rights.
But the impact on the Republican nominating contest nevertheless is unclear. Virtually all of the candidates swiftly came out against Obama’s plan. Pratt said his organization has endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz, but he added that he does not think the senator from Texas stands to gain more than other GOP candidates.
“There’s really not much daylight between most of the Republican candidates,” he said.
Kopel signaled potential danger for Trump among voters who care most passionately about the Second Amendment, given the real estate mogul’s past record on the issue. In his 2000 book “The America We Deserve,” for instance, Trump endorsed an assault weapons ban and a waiting period for gun buyers.
“Some candidates have more consistent records than others,” Kopel said.
Chris Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, suggested that Obama is making his move now — in his last year in office and nearly a year before the 2016 election — to blunt the political fallout.
“The timing of this announcement, in the eighth and final year of his presidency, demonstrates not only political exploitation but a fundamental lack of seriousness,” Cox said in a prepared statement Tuesday.
Kopel said that for Obama, the executive action distracts the public from his record on issues like fighting terrorism coming from the Islamic State.
“Obama has a strong political interest in having the public talk about anything other than his failed incompetence in fighting ISIS,” he said.