Tuesday Night’s recall elections in Colorado were a victory for the NRA and supporters of relaxing gun laws, and a stinging defeat for Democrats as two Colorado lawmakers, State Senate President John Morse and Pueblo State Senator Angela Giron were recalled. Morse went down by a narrow 51-49 margin in a Colorado Springs district while Giron fell 56-44 in blue collar Pueblo. First of all, Democrats must admit there is no positive way to spin these results. Giron’s district went 58-38 for Obama over Romney in 2012 and Morse’s district delivered for Obama 57-37. These are not districts that lean heavily Republican so Tuesday’s results should alert Democrats that they have reason for concern in Colorado going forward. However, the results of the recall should not be cause for overreaction or misreading the tea leaves either.
A Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey done over the weekend found that in Giron’s district voters overwhelmingly approved expanded background checks for gun purchases by a 68-27 margin. The provision passed by Giron and Morse and the Colorado State Senate that limited high capacity ammunition magazines to 15 bullets was less popular, garnering a 47-47 split between those who favored the idea and those who opposed it. In addition, although voters were supportive of background checks, they still hold a positive view of the National Rifle Association (NRA) by a strong 53-33 margin. So while the results of the recalls suggest that Western state Democrats should tread carefully around gun control legislation and that attempts to demonize the NRA may not be a good strategy, they do not necessarily suggest that passing background checks is bad policy.
Since PPP did not release the poll results until after the recall election, they have been justifiably criticized. Without rehashing the debate about why PPP chose not to release the data prior to the election, it should be noted that they have found support for expanded background checks in every state polled so far in 2013. This includes Colorado’s northern neighbor Wyoming, the nation’s leader in per capita gun ownership, where a July poll showed Wyoming voters approving expanded background checks by a 55-33 margin.
Without a doubt, the fallout from the election will make red state Democrats cautious about putting forth gun control measures even as the residents of their state seem to support some of those measures. Red state Democratic Senators Mark Begich, Mark Pryor and Heidi Heitkamp probably see Tuesday’s results as vindication for their choice not to pass expanded background checks when they had the opportunity to do so in the US Senate. Taking on the NRA in many Western and Southern states is still a politically risky decision, even if voters express split personalities on the issue, supporting both expanded background checks and supporting the organization (the NRA) that most vigorously opposes them.
Perhaps it is ironic that in the state where both the Aurora shooting and the Columbine massacre occurred, that lawmakers who passed a bill requiring stronger background checks and magazine size limits were recalled. It is doubly ironic that at least the background checks portion of the bill was in principle at least, quite popular with the voters. The politician who passed it however, apparently was not. Yet both Angela Giron and John Morse moved the state in the direction of more carefully regulating gun purchases and imposing restrictions on the lethal capacity of a lone gunman to inflict unlimited carnage with a high capacity rifle and a boundless supply of ammunition at his disposal. While they may have made Colorado safer, the voters nevertheless chose to replace them. The emboldened supporters of gun rights have reason to celebrate, but the mandate may be more ambiguous than they realize and the battle over background checks will be played out in other legislative arenas, possibly with different results.