Parkland anniversary highlight Democratic shift on guns

Nicholas Riccardi
Associated Press

In the final weeks before the 2008 election, Barack Obama’s campaign sent mailers to Florida voters reassuring them that he supported the Second Amendment. In the opening days of the 2020 Democratic primary, it’s hard to imagine any candidate feeling the need to make a similar gesture.

“Guns are no longer the third rail,” said Steve Schale, a political operative who ran Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008. “Ten to 12 years ago, Democrats had to – for political necessity – be really careful about how they talked about it. Now, if you don’t talk about it, you’re not part of the political conversation.”

Democrats are increasingly emboldened to embrace gun control as the anniversary of America’s deadliest mass shooting at a high school approaches on Thursday. The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 students and staff members and roused a group of young activists who sought to make gun violence a generational issue for younger voters.

Since then, Democrats say they’re buoyed by their success in last year’s midterms. The party won back the House of Representatives, fueled by victories in several competitive, suburban swing districts where candidates highlighted gun control.

Lucy McBath, who became a gun control activist after her 17-year-old son was shot to death at a gas station in 2012, won a suburban Atlanta congressional district that had long been held by the GOP. Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger, ousted the Republican congressman and gun rights supporter who represented the district where the Aurora theater shooting happened outside Denver in 2012. Even in Republican-dominated Texas, backing gun control didn’t stop Democrats from flipping a suburban Houston seat to their column.

AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of the American electorate, found 8 percent of midterm voters across the country called gun policy the top issue facing the nation. They broke for Democrats over Republicans by more than 4 to 1.

“The primary thing that’s shifted in the politics of this issue is voter intensity was on their side. It’s now on ours,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun control group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords after she was injured in a 2011 mass shooting.

Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, said Tuesday that he would run as a Democrat for Arizona’s Senate seat next year, suggesting that gun control won’t soon fade from the campaign trail.

Democratic bullishness on guns is reflected by the unanimity in its sprawling presidential field on the issue. Presidential aspirants who once took a more moderate stance and opposed elements of gun control, such as Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have now embraced the cause. And the most prominent potential moderates in the Democratic field, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Vice President Joe Biden, are longtime gun control advocates.

But there’s no guarantee the Democrats’ leftward turn on guns will help them recreate their 2018 victory during the 2020 presidential election, which will take place on different terrain than the diverse, educated suburbs where Democrats performed best in in November. Democrats will have to win more rural, whiter states to defeat Republican Donald Trump in the Electoral College in 2020.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton ran on a platform of unabashed gun control – partly a product of attacking Sanders for his more conservative gun control positions in the Democratic presidential primary. Trump accused her of trying to do away with the Second Amendment and warned she might appoint Supreme Court justices with that goal. Republicans believe that’s part of the reason Trump eked out his 2016 win.

“The threat of a Hillary Clinton presidency brought gun owners out of the woodwork in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania,” said Dave Workman, a longtime gun rights activist at the Second Amendment Foundation in Washington state. Gun owners “may not like everything about Trump, but they sure don’t want him replaced by Kamala Harris or Cory Booker,” Workman added, referring to the California and New Jersey senators running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

So far, Democrats like Booker and Harris routinely allude to problems of gun violence but have not released detailed plans to control it. The candidates may soon find themselves in a bidding war on the issue.