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Editorial: Another Defeat

The recall of two state legislators in Colorado who played key roles in passing modest gun-control measures may be depressing, but it can also serve a constructive purpose: It should alert supporters of gun control to just how much work lies ahead. The Colorado results indicate that those voters, at least, are more upset about tighter gun regulation than the continuation of blood-letting.

Colorado is one of a handful of states that actually took action in the wake of the massacre of schoolchildren and their teachers in Connecticut and the sickening series of mass shootings that preceded it. Its Legislature passed a number of sensible measures, including requiring background checks for private gun sales and limiting ammunition magazines to 15 rounds.

On Tuesday, voters removed two Democratic senators — John Morse, who was president of the Senate, and Angela Giron — for the sin of supporting those regulations.

“We made Colorado safer from gun violence,” Morse said after he lost his seat. “If it cost me my political career, that’s a small price to pay.”

That’s noble of him, but it seriously understates the damage done. Just a few months after the U.S. Senate rejected several tepid gun-control measures, it’s unlikely that elected representatives anywhere will miss the message delivered in Colorado. And while we might otherwise be tempted to ascribe the U.S. Senate’s recent failure to the timidity of its members, the Colorado results suggest something else: Solid popular support for such measures doesn’t now exist.

Colorado may be a Western state with a strong hunting tradition, but it is also politically heterogeneous with conservatives dominating its rural reaches and liberals more powerful in its urban areas. According to The New York Times, the two recalled senators did not come from parts of the state where they could expect to be punished for their votes. Giron represented a heavily working-class Democratic district in the southern part of the state. Morse, a former police chief, represented a section of Colorado Springs, the state’s second largest city, where Democrats, Republicans and independents balance each other out. The recall votes in both districts offered useful tests of how vulnerable politicians render themselves by supporting gun control.

The answer: very.

Those inclined to attribute the results to the machinations, deep pockets and scaremongering of the gun lobby will not be surprised to learn that gun groups, including the National Rifle Association, spent heavily. But they were, in fact, considerably outspent by a coalition of groups and individuals favoring more restrictive regulation, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Moreover, that money was used in part to pay for a sophisticated canvassing campaign. And Colorado residents would seem to be especially aware of the need to exercise more control over who has access to weapons and what kind of weapons are available: Two of the most horrific mass shootings in recent times occurred in their state — at a high school in Columbine and a movie theater in Aurora.

So none of the standard explanations are available to sugarcoat the results. The politicians lost because people didn’t support the gun-control measures they were associated with — or because people who oppose gun control were more motivated to vote than those who support it. What’s particularly baffling about the results is that they contradict the findings of numerous national polls that indicate a majority of Americans favor stricter gun laws.

Gun-control supporters are already an exasperated lot. Many of their standard arguments emphasize how the measures they advocate aim merely to promote public safety without jeopardizing the right to own or use guns for legitimate purposes. They note that many of these measures were, not long ago, supported by gun-rights groups before Second Amendment absolutism came into vogue. They argue that a more comprehensive background check system wouldn’t prevent anyone from acquiring a gun unless that person was already legally prohibited from doing so. And they note that any of the proposed limits on the type of weaponry that could be sold wouldn’t interfere with those who wish to hunt or even defend themselves.

All of which is very true. But they need to figure out why those arguments seem to be convincing no one but themselves, even in the aftermath of numerous unspeakable tragedies.