Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska strode across an open field, a rifle draped over his shoulder. Brian Schweitzer, running for governor of Montana, wore camouflage as he peered through the viewfinder perched atop his gun.
Those images, featured in television ads promoting the candidacies of two Democrats, help explain why the Democratic-controlled Congress is not rushing to pass stricter gun laws after the shootings at Virginia Tech that left 33 people dead and spurred renewed calls in some circles for further restrictions on firearm sales.
Democrats have traditionally backed gun restrictions. President Clinton signed an assault weapons ban in 1994, a bill passed by a Democratic Congress. After the deaths of 15 people at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, he and Democratic lawmakers pushed for more gun laws. But they were stymied by the Republicans who then held congressional majorities.
Democrats now nurse thin majorities in the House and Senate -- majorities they attained last year in part because they recruited candidates who opposed more gun laws and who won on traditionally Republican turf. And many in the party are embracing the culture of hunting that is a way of life in rural America.
The muted response on Capitol Hill to the Virginia Tech massacre underscores an evolving willingness among some Democrats from the party’s urban and coastal strongholds to recognize the political realities that face colleagues who need rural votes to win office. It also illustrates a growing belief within the party that Democrats probably cannot keep power without a strategy to appeal to voters in the typically conservative heartland.
Many strategists believe that the 1994 assault weapons ban cost the party its congressional majorities later that year in the midterm election. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore’s loss in the presidential race was blamed in part on the gun issue. And in 2001, a successful gubernatorial campaign by a Democrat who embraced gun rights persuaded many party leaders of the political value in courting hunters.
The party’s 2004 presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, attempted to score points with gun enthusiasts, donning camouflage and hoisting a 12-gauge, double-barreled shotgun for a day of duck hunting in the battleground state of Ohio.
“If we’re going to be a majority party, it has to be a coalition of people that don’t agree on every issue,” said Karl Struble, a Democratic strategist who has produced pro-gun-rights ads for several candidates. “There are an awful lot of Democrats in the middle part of the country that do not believe there ought to be intrusive laws about the rights to own guns.”
Nelson’s easy reelection in November, along with wins over GOP incumbents by fellow gun rights supporters James Webb in Virginia and Jon Tester in Montana, helped secure the Senate for Democrats. Meanwhile, several socially conservative Democrats ousted Republican incumbents to give the party its House majority.
The powerful National Rifle Assn., which is traditionally aligned with Republicans, backed more than 60 Democrats in congressional races in 2006, while remaining neutral in other key races.
“Democrats woke up and realized what Republicans have known for a long time, which is that the [gun rights] culture is here and it’s not going anywhere,” said Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist who advised Webb.
In Montana in 2004, a television ad showed Schweitzer aiming a rifle as he touted his NRA membership. Polls have shown Schweitzer enjoying strong approval ratings, and his standing paved the way for greater Democratic gains in the state.
Nelson, in his ad last year, was clad in an orange hunting vest as he trolled with fellow sportsmen. He told viewers, “We don’t need any more gun laws. We simply need to enforce the ones we’ve got.”
The Democrats’ new hesitancy to engage on guns was clear almost immediately after Monday’s killings. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada warned against a “rush to judgment” in pursuing tighter gun laws.
Reid, whose voting record has gotten high marks from the NRA, spoke by telephone Thursday with Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, another Democrat who has courted hunters and the NRA, and the two agreed that it was too early to talk about legislation, according to Reid’s office.
One presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), on Thursday told a radio interviewer that he supported changing laws to better ensure that mentally ill people cannot buy guns. But he added, “I’m respectful of people who want to hunt or sportsmen, somebody who might want to have a gun in the house to protect their home.”
The reluctance of most Democratic congressional leaders to push for new gun laws has sparked frustration among many gun control advocates and perturbed some Democratic lawmakers.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) are among those who have said that the Virginia Tech shootings underscore the need for tougher regulation. Some Democrats, led by gun rights supporter Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) are trying in the wake of Monday’s shootings to win NRA support for improving existing criminal background checks.
“Everyone’s afraid of the NRA,” said McCarthy’s spokesman, George Burke. “It’s a pro-gun House and a pro-gun Senate. That’s just the reality of it.”
Since the 1990 election, the NRA has given nearly $16 million to federal candidates and parties and spent an additional $32 million on campaigns for or against certain candidates -- efforts that overwhelmingly supported Republicans, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Beyond campaign contributions, the NRA draws its power from its 4 million members -- a grass-roots network that can be enlisted to support specific candidates.
An NRA spokesman declined to comment, saying that it would be inappropriate to discuss politics in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings. But the group’s support for more Democrats in recent campaigns -- and the party’s reluctance to aggressively call for new laws -- suggest that the NRA has maintained its influence in the Democratic-controlled Congress.
Party strategists cite the 2000 election as a pivotal moment for the Democratic approach to guns. Many believe that Gore’s support of gun control contributed to his loss of West Virginia, Arkansas and his home state of Tennessee -- carrying any one of them would have secured him the White House.
In 2001, Democrat Mark Warner won the governor’s race in Virginia with a strategy featuring a bluegrass jingle and support from a new, high-profile group, Sportsmen for Warner. Pro-Warner bumper stickers and placards emblazoned with orange camouflage dotted the roads of southwestern Virginia.
Schweitzer told advisors he wanted every one of his campaign ads to show him either on a horse or wielding a gun. He was only half-joking, one aide said.
Struble, the Democratic strategist, produced the ads for Schweitzer and Nelson, along with similar spots for Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, Democrats who won their races last year.
The approach worked. But Struble said Democratic gains could be washed away if the party tried again to tighten gun laws.
“A lot of people on the two coasts don’t appreciate that hunting and being a sportsman are as much about the culture as having a latte and reading the Los Angeles Times is to them in Los Angeles, or having a latte and reading the New York Times in New York,” Struble said. “The perceived infringement of those rights would be just as much an affront as saying you can’t have any more lattes.”
Times staff writer Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.