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Politics

Democrats campaigning aggressively on gun control, dropping longtime reticence

Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign stop Wednesday in Salem, N.H. Clinton and other Democratic hopefuls have stepped up their emphasis on gun control.

(Jim Cole / Associated Press)

Democrats running for president have thrown off years of caution to aggressively advocate tough new gun laws, a response to a shocking series of mass shootings as well as changes in the country’s political makeup.

The turnabout has been on clear display since last week’s massacre in San Bernardino. In the aftermath, Democratic Senate leaders immediately forced votes on several gun control efforts, knowing they would lose, but wanting to draw a sharp, public line. The party’s presidential candidates have also emphasized the issue at every opportunity.

The advocacy breaks with more than two decades of belief that gun control was a losing issue for Democrats.

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The sentiment crystallized when Republicans seized control of the House in 1994, in part because of a backlash against an assault-weapons ban signed into law by President Clinton. Then, when Vice President Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee and the traditional Democratic stronghold of West Virginia in 2000 — costing him the White House — it hardened into a near certainty that gun control was political poison.

Since then, public opinion on the issue hasn’t changed much, despite mass shootings in places like Colorado, Oregon and, most recently, the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. In fact, support for gun control has actually been higher at earlier points than it is today.

What has changed are the demographics of presidential politics and the nation’s electoral map. Democrats no longer rely on states like Tennessee or West Virginia to win the White House. The strategy that emerged under President Obama depends, instead, on a coalition of minority voters, urban dwellers and single women — groups that look far more favorably on restricting firearms.

“The way to win as a Democrat is to energize that ‘rising America’ electorate, and being aggressive in terms of gun policy and gun safety law is a great issue to mobilize these voters,” said Tad Devine, who advises Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, once an opponent of stricter gun controls but now taking a much tougher stance.

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“If you look at the demographic changes, you realize that being for gun safety is a good issue that Democrats can run on and don’t have to run away from,” Devine said.

Democrats have embraced that notion. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, now pushes for gun control at every opportunity, even producing a campaign television advertisement focused exclusively on the issue.

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“The epidemic of gun violence knows no boundaries,” Clinton said in the spot. “How many people have to die before we actually act, before we come together as a nation?”

By contrast, in 2008, Clinton courted gun owners by boasting about the shooting she did as a girl with her father. She criticized her then-rival Barack Obama for unflattering remarks about Middle America gun culture.

The new stance, highlighted in debates in which the candidates have competed in their denunciations of the gun lobby, was tested in a laboratory of sorts earlier this year.

The experiment took place in Virginia, a state emblematic of the country’s evolving politics and changing demographic composition. There, backers of new gun controls, heavily bankrolled by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, looked to see whether their message could work in the state’s 2015 legislative contests.

On the surface, the results in two hotly contested races seemed inconclusive: One candidate won, the other lost.

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The candidate who won was backed by the National Rifle Assn., a bulwark of the pro-gun lobby, in a district reflective of the old Virginia, a largely rural expanse stretching west from Richmond, the state capital.

But Democrats and gun control advocates were heartened by the results in the second district, in a rapidly growing region an hour outside of Washington, which they say more nearly reflects the booming bedroom communities that will probably decide the 2016 presidential race in swing states like Nevada, Colorado and Virginia.

“They came here to test how deep into rural America they can go, whether it might be acceptable in suburban and exurban areas where people are concerned about safety,” said Quentin Kidd, who teaches political science at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va.

The lessons Democrats took away are now playing out on the national stage, as Clinton and her two rivals strike an unreservedly antagonistic stance toward the NRA and its allies. They are pushing tough new restrictions on who can have guns, bans on where they can be sold and the prohibition of the civilian use of military-style weapons.

Clinton has been particularly keen to embrace the issue in the primary against Sanders and Martin O’Malley — who signed strict gun controls into law as Maryland’s governor — as it is one of the few in which she can position herself closer to the party’s liberal base.

But she is not expected to ease up if she wins the Democratic nomination.

“Once you’ve moved on this, once you’ve leaned in, you can never flinch,” said Paul Begala, who worked in the Clinton White House and advises the main political action committee supporting the former first lady.

Republicans and gun rights advocates say Democrats — perhaps enthralled by Bloomberg’s checkbook — are making a grave misjudgment.

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The results in Virginia, they say, merely proved that a district that voted heavily in favor of Obama would elect a Democrat to the Legislature and that pushing gun control may have cost them the other seat, which was very much up for grabs.

They point to other recent races in which guns emerged as a major issue and supporters of gun control lost: U.S. Senate races in Colorado and North Carolina and the Arizona congressional district formerly represented by Democrat Gabby Giffords, who was herself a victim of a mass shooting.

“People who support gun control don’t have the voter intensity,” said Jennifer Baker, director of public affairs at the NRA. “By pushing this issue to the forefront they do more to energize voters who support the 2nd Amendment.”

David Winston, a Republican pollster and consultant to the House leadership, said he’s seen no data suggesting that voters see tougher gun controls as the solution to gun violence.

“I don’t think it’s going to have the impact they think it will” at the polls, he said of Democrats’ redoubled advocacy.

Gun control supporters acknowledge the “intensity” gap is a problem for them.

“The group that makes it a single-vote issue are the people against it,” said Peter Hart, a veteran Democrat pollster. “You can win the vast majority of the public, but it becomes a nonvoting issue for them. And the people opposed to gun control make it their single most important issue. That’s the challenge.”

Gun control advocates are trying to overcome the disparity in passions by embracing some of the very same tactics the NRA has long used to turn out voters.

The Bloomberg-funded group Everytown for Gun Safety says it has enlisted 1 million voters pledging to cast their ballots on the issue, established political committees investing millions of dollars in ballot measures and state and federal races, and has hordes of members deluging the offices of lawmakers with phone calls and emails the way NRA members long have.

It claims success in electing gubernatorial candidates pushing tough gun laws in Virginia and Colorado, which are likely to be two of the most competitive states in 2016.

“The gun control side has never had money or political mobilization,” said Adam Winkler, author of “Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America” and a law professor at UCLA. “Now they have both.”

Winkler said while the NRA is holding the line against new gun laws passing Congress and is dominant in many states around the country — several of which have loosened gun laws in recent years — the opposition has gained ground in places like California, New York, Colorado and Oregon, which have toughened restrictions. Stricter gun laws now cover a near-majority of Americans.

“Democrats are freer to talk about gun control now,” Winkler said, “because they feel it is not going to cost them votes.”

For more on Campaign 2016, follow @EvanHalper and @MarkZBarabak.

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