Whenever I try to convince state legislators that they should support basic, common-sense gun safety reforms, I frequently run into a puzzling obstacle. Members of the General Assembly irrationally believe they would pay a political price for opposing gun safety legislation. The people of Exeter just destroyed that argument.
This belief has always borne little relation to reality. Guns are a rare issue where we have decent Rhode Island polling. According to well-regarded national pollster PPP, the people of Rhode Island favor an assault weapons ban by a 37-point margin—ten points more than Obama carried this state by. Although Obama lost two state House seats, he lost them by less than ten points, and he won every single state Senate seat. Most likely, every single member of the General Assembly represents a district that supports an assault weapons ban.
Taken in November, a Projo/WPRI poll paints the same picture. By an extremely narrow margin, even Ocean State Republicans are more likely to say our gun laws do not go far enough than go too far. When Independents and Democrats are included, “not far enough” beats “go too far” by a much larger margin of 35 points. Given that the pollster, Fleming and Associates, is notoriously conservative, these numbers are probably soft. (They missed the race between David Cicilline and Brendan Doherty by 11 points.)
Because the real election for most seats in Rhode Island is the Democratic primary, these numbers heavily underestimate just how politically silly it is to oppose gun safety legislation. Among Democrats, support for an assault weapons ban is an absolutely brutal 86%-9%. By a nearly identical margin of 87%-8%, Rhode Island Democrats are more likely to trust Barack Obama on guns than the NRA. Yet the entire top Democratic leadership of the General Assembly—House Speaker Gordon Fox, Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed, House Majority Leader Nick Mattiello, and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio—each took thousands of dollars from the NRA. (The NRA’s Rhode Island PAC recently shut down in response to a campaign finance complaint I filed.)
Despite all the evidence, the conventional wisdom on Smith Hill is still that there is a political price to be paid for supporting reform. Probably because the gun people are so loud, far too many Democrats still doggedly believe that their districts oppose reform. The people of Exeter proved them wrong.
Exeter is hardly favorably turf for gun safety advocates. Obama only won the town by six points. As one of the most rural parts of the state, one might think it would have a relatively high rate of gun ownership. This was an off-cycle election, where the NRA’s famed organizing muscle would play to the best advantage. And most importantly, this was a general election not dominated by the more liberal Democratic primary electorate. Yet we still won convincingly. Exeter voters defeated the recall 63%-37%.
If we can win on the gun issue in a general election in Exeter, we should be able to easily win on this issue in a Democratic primary in, say, Warwick. Senator Michael McCaffrey, take notice.