One basic lesson of staying-in-office goes like this: successful politicians ought not take the wrong side of an issue that fires up their constituents. And yet, sometimes they can't help themselves. A classic case of ideology trumping practical politics, made clear over the past week and change, is the knee-jerk Democratic reflex for gun control.
The U.S. Constitution says, and the Supreme Court agrees, ordinary Americans have a right to "keep and bear arms" which "shall not be infringed." Polls find Americans broadly in favor gun rights for non-felons, and they are willing to vote on this issue. Two Mile-High Democrats were painfully reminded of this electoral fact last week. Colorado state senators John Morse and Angela Giron lost recall elections, effectively ending their political careers, because they championed and voted for a gun control bill.
The legislation was limited in scope and passed in the wake of a movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo. Those extenuating circumstances didn't matter to angry voters who gave the legislators their pink slips. Party mouthpieces and sympathetic cable talkers tried to blame the loss on standard Democratic demons - the NRA, the brothers Koch, voter suppression - rather than acknowledge gun control is a losing issue.
We saw the same reflex at work this week as pols tried to use the shootout at the Washington Navy Yard to push a gun control agenda. "When will enough be enough?" asked California Sen. Dianne Feinstein as reported in The Hill. She held the Navy Yard massacre - which resulted in 13 dead on Monday, including the shooter - up as another example of a "deranged person or grievance killer" being able to "obtain multiple weapons ... and kill many people in a short amount of time."
Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democrats' Senate whip, suggested expanded background checks could have prevented the latest tragedy. Unpassed federal legislation would have kept "a gun like an AR-15 or any firearm out of the hands of people who are guilty of felonies or are mentally unstable," Durbin said.
Subsequent reporting shot the factual basis of those assertions full of holes. Gunman Aaron Alexis used not an AR-15, an assault weapon that has been in the sites of gun controllers for some time, but a shotgun - the very weapon Vice President Joe Biden regularly holds up as the safe alternative for self-defense. He then apparently picked handguns off the bodies of security guards and continued shooting until he was put down. AR-15s may indeed have been used at the scene by folks who were shooting at the killer.
Further, Alexis passed one of the Democrats' vaunted background checks to buy the shotgun. What this all means is that there was not much that gun control measures could have done to prevent his rampage. One doubts a sudden consensus will form in favor of banning shotguns, disarming security guards or barring honorably discharged veterans from owning firearms.
Republicans shot back that previous gun control measures may have exacerbated the problem at the Navy Yard, noting that most people who are not armed guards are forbidden from carrying firearms there. The GOP may or may not have a point there, but that is a factual argument about a subject that, for Democrats, now amounts to an article of secular faith. They will seize on any shooting and any stray poll result to enthuse that gun control must be a part of America's progressive future. "We don't need a moment of silence. We need a day of action," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi practically sermonized Wednesday.
Her party had one of those in Colorado. It didn't work out so well.
Jeremy Lott is editor of Real Clear Books, Policy and Religion, and author of four books, including "The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency".