With the string of Tea Party victories in Republican primary elections, "gun rights" extremism is emerging as an issue in key races throughout the country.
Even before Tuesday's primaries, Republican candidates in several Senate races have found themselves on the defensive for their statements and positions on guns. In a recent debate, Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina gave incumbent Barabara Boxer a potent attack issue when Fiorina would not budge from her absurd position that individuals on the terrorist watch list should be able to buy guns, even though they cannot board airplanes. In Illinois, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Pat Quinn is pounding his Republican opponent State Senator Bill Brady for opposing an assault weapon ban and restrictions on guns near schools.
Even Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a champion of the National Rifle Association as Senate Majority Leader, has attacked his opponent, Tea Party Republican Sharron Angle, for her alarming statement that the people may have to resort to "Second Amendment remedies" (meaning violent revolt against government officials), if politicians like Harry Reid are reelected. As conservative columnist Michael Gerson observed, it is "toxic" for the GOP to be associated with this "implied resort to political violence." Clearly, Reid smelled political blood in the water from Angle's insurrectionist rhetoric, though, as I argue elsewhere, his attack on her Second Amendment extremism may have cost him the NRA's endorsement.
With the Tea Party's record of primary victories, "gun rights" extremism will be on conspicuous display in Republican campaigns across the country. After all, the open carrying of assault rifles and other guns, along with violent, insurrectionist rhetoric, have become staples of Tea Party gatherings since the movement emerged in force over a year ago. A survey of Tea Partiers by Democracy Corps shows that they are more pro-gun than pro-life. A remarkable 77% of them have "warm" views toward the NRA, while only 61% have "warm" views toward pro-life organizations.
As the Fall campaigns unfold, expect the Tea Party Republicans to stay far to the right on guns - they are, after all, committed ideologues. Carl Paladino, the Tea Party-supported Republican candidate for New York Governor, wants to repeal the state's assault weapon ban. In Pennsylvania, Tea Party Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey's standard quip that "gun control is a steady aim" will be seen as more heartless than clever as he contests the swing suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh against gun control supporter Joe Sestak. Colorado Tea Party Republican Ken Buck has received the endorsement of the far right Gun Owners of America, a group that thinks the NRA is too soft on Second Amendment issues. In pulling off her shocking primary victory over Mike Castle in the Republican Senate primary in Delaware this week, Tea Party heroine Christine O'Donnell, also endorsed by Gun Owners of America, was sharply critical of Castle's moderate positions on guns. The gun issue is likely to haunt O'Donnell in the Fall.
The emergence of successful Tea Party candidates in key Republican primaries is one of the few bright spots for the Democratic Party in this otherwise daunting election season for Democrats. Though economic issues certainly will dominate most races, a powerful narrative is taking form that the Tea Party Republicans are extremist ideologues flying too close to the "crazy flame." Few observers will more colorfully express this theme than Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who recently accused the Republicans of being "dominated by the whacko right," calling some GOP positions "flat out crazy." Look for "gun craziness" to become an important supporting theme in key races.
On the gun issue, the polls have long shown that the vast majority of Americans, including gun owners, are not extremists. They are not ideologues. They believe law-abiding, responsible adults have the right to own guns. They also believe that right should be subject to reasonable restrictions to make it harder for dangerous people to get guns. They don't like people carrying guns into Starbucks.
The Tea Party Republicans could not be more out of step with the American electorate on guns. If the Democrats are smart, they will make "gun rights" extremism part of a broader narrative that the Republican Party has allowed the Tea Party to lead it off the deep end.
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)