To see how much the Democratic party has changed its tune on gun control, look back to the April 2008 presidential primary debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
The pair looked uncomfortable when asked for their positions on guns. Obama, facing criticism for saying rural Americans bitterly “cling to guns or religion” in response to economic woes, spoke warmly about the traditions of hunters. Clinton, for her part, framed her desire to pass an assault-weapons ban specifically as an aid to “outgunned” police officers. Both avoided opining on Supreme Court deliberations over a Washington, D.C., handgun ban — which the justices ended up striking down.
There was a reason for the pair to be nervous: Republicans had long used gun control as an effective cultural wedge issue against Democrats in national elections.
But when the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates take the debate stage in Detroit this week, don’t expect them to be so shy if the subject of guns comes up — which it might, given Sunday’s mass shooting in Gilroy, Calif., where a gunman with an AK-47-style rifle killed three people and wounded 12 others.
Over the last decade, an unrelenting stream of mass shootings with increasing body counts has horrified the public, fanned liberal activism and emboldened Democrats to embrace gun control policies that would dramatically increase the federal government’s restrictions on gun purchases.
Almost every candidate in the field supports universal background checks, implementing “red flag” laws to take away guns from high-risk individuals, and bringing back a ban on the sale of “assault” weapons similar to the one the nation had between 1994 and 2004. And they have not been apologetic about it.
“It’s very encouraging and exciting for us to see so many candidates take such a proactive stand on this issue,” said Robin Lloyd, managing director of Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence — an institute whose namesake, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head in a mass shooting in 2011.
The National Rifle Assn., the powerful gun-rights group that spent more than $30 million to support President Trump’s election in 2016, is critical, believing that “not a single one of the many gun control schemes proposed by the anti-gun Democratic candidates for president would make Americans any safer,” said Catherine Mortensen, an NRA spokesperson.
“Their ‘solutions’ narrowly focus on guns, not violent crime, and would do nothing to make anyone safer,” Mortensen said in a statement. “They would, however, severely infringe the rights of law-abiding Americans, including through the banning and forced surrender of commonly owned firearms.”
Trump has opposed Democratic legislation that would expand background checks, but he hasn’t uniformly resisted all calls for gun control. His administration banned the sale of “bump stock” accessories that increase semiautomatic rifles’ rate of fire following their use in the 2017 Las Vegas massacre that left 59 dead and more than 500 wounded. Trump has also expressed hesitancy about allowing the manufacture of 3-D-printed guns.
On the Democratic side, the candidates’ positions are more similar than different. Even Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, whose state strongly supported Trump‘s election in 2016, supports an assault weapons ban.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has been a longtime advocate of gun control measures such as an assault weapons ban, universal background checks, and measures to protect victims of domestic violence. During the campaign he has also called for combating gun violence with “smart guns” — firearms that require the owner’s fingerprint or another biometric measure to use them.
During the Obama administration, he led a task force on gun violence formed after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. The task force recommended more background checks for gun purchases and other measures, but Congress failed to pass them.
While in the Senate, Biden supported an assault weapons ban that was eventually passed as part of the 1994 anti-crime bill. He also supported the 1993 Brady Bill, which established waiting periods for handgun purchases and created the current background check system.
Despite his long record of support for gun control, Biden also voted for the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986, a major change backed by the NRA that allowed dealers to sell firearms through the mail, at gun shows and — after the internet was established — online. Biden also opposes requiring federal licenses for gun ownership, a position supported by many other Democratic candidates.
Among the bolder proposals to restrict access to guns are those of Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California.
Booker, a former Newark mayor, would require a federal license to buy or own a gun as part of what he calls “the most sweeping gun violence prevention proposal ever put forth by a presidential candidate .”
All gun buyers would be fingerprinted for an FBI background check under Booker’s plan. They would also have to take a certified gun safety course. The license could be renewed every five years. Booker would also ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. He has also called for the repeal of a 2005 law that immunizes gun manufacturers from liability for misuse of their products.
Harris emphasizes that she would take executive action to restrict gun sales if Congress failed to act on her firearm proposals, including an assault weapons ban, in the first 100 days of her presidency. She would require anyone who sells five or more guns per year to run a background check on all buyers.
She would also revoke the licenses of gun dealers and gun manufacturers who break the law. The move would target dealers caught selling to a straw purchaser or providing firearms consistently used to commit crimes.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, whose campaign is built around the theme of having a wide range of detailed policy positions, has not published detailed plans for how she would address gun control. But she has said she would ban assault weapons, prevent domestic abusers from legally obtaining guns and close “the gun show loophole” that allows private sales to avoid background check requirements. She has also called for federally funding gun-violence prevention research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a liberal state with a rural hunting culture, has faced criticism from gun-control advocates for not taking hardline positions on gun control in past congressional votes, though the independent senator has become increasingly aligned with today’s liberal orthodoxy on stricter gun control.
Sanders supports an assault weapons ban, expanded background checks and restrictions on high-capacity magazines. It is not clear if he supports implementing a federal gun licensing system; a campaign spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Lloyd said the Giffords center had no concerns about Sanders’ record. “We have talked to Sen. Sanders many, many times over the years, and we are very comfortable with the fact that he, like many Americans on this issue, has continued to evolve,” she said.
But perhaps no candidate illustrates the shift inside the Democratic Party on gun rights as dramatically as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. She supported the Supreme Court’s overturning of the Washington handgun ban and touted her “A” rating from the NRA when she was campaigning for reelection as congresswoman for an upstate New York district. But after Gillibrand was appointed to the Senate in 2009 to fill the seat vacated by Clinton, she embraced stronger gun-control laws.
“I didn’t do the right thing,” Gillibrand told CNN earlier this year, expressing remorse for her old position. “And not only was I wrong, and not only should I have cared more about gun violence in other parts of my state or other parts of my country, I just didn’t.”
And now? She supports an assault weapons ban, universal background checks and “red flag” laws. “Kirsten has an ‘F’ rating from the NRA,” her campaign website says, “and she’s proud of it.”
Pearce and Finnegan reported from Los Angeles, Hook from Washington.