After downplaying the issue for most of the past two decades, Democrats in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail are now advancing their most ambitious ideas to control access to firearms since at least the 2000 election, and arguably ever.
The new proposals range from a near-universal call from the field of 2020 presidential candidates to ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines to proposals from several candidates to require licensing of gun owners and registration of either all guns or assault weapons. Neither Democrats nor the leading gun control groups have seriously discussed licensing or registration since the 2000 presidential campaign, when Al Gore endorsed the former and many (including former President Bill Clinton) later partially blamed his loss to George W. Bush on the vice president’s positions on guns.
This reversal reflects the greater unity on gun-related issues that Democrats have achieved over the past few years as their electoral coalition has shifted away from heavily blue-collar and rural areas, where gun culture is strong, toward urban centers and white-collar suburbs that generally support limits on access to firearms. Particularly with their push to require background checks for all gun sales, Democrats are now much more confident than even a few years ago that they hold the upper hand on gun issues, particularly against the remaining Republicans in the House or Senate who must appeal to substantial suburban constituencies.
But the proliferation of proposals to regulate gun ownership, particularly from the presidential candidates, threatens to divide Democrats along lines familiar on other issues, from immigration to health care.
Liberals and gun control advocates generally argue it’s important to shift the parameters of the debate with sweeping ideas like licensing of gun owners, even if they have little chance of passing Congress in the near term. Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the gun control advocacy group co-founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, believes a more aspirational presidential debate can generate momentum for more immediate legislative priorities.
“The folks that have been skeptical about the politics of gun safety for a long time are the same ones who feel the gun debate needs to happen within the four corners of a compromise amendment from six years ago,” he said, referring to the 2013 Senate vote on universal background checks. “The debate that we’re seeing happen at the national level, whether we’re talking about presidential politics or Congress, is derived from the fact that voters across the country are extremely angry at the status quo. … The fact that our leaders are responding to that anger is of enormous benefit to our legislative efforts and doesn’t distract (from them) in any way, shape or form.”
But moderates fear that Democrats pushing the most sweeping ideas risk alienating centrist voters who are ambivalent or uneasy about President Donald Trump’s tumultuous term.
“Political concerns about gun safety measures aren’t as acute as they were in 2000, but they’re not completely gone,” said Matt Bennett, executive vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “Even a diminished NRA is dangerous. More importantly, we don’t want to write Trump’s ads for him. Overreaching on an issue as charged as this is a bad idea in an epochal election like this one. It won’t help us win the blue wall states we need to defeat Trump, and it certainly won’t help us win states like Colorado, Arizona, Maine and Alabama to give a Democratic president a governing majority in the Senate.”
Momentum grows, then slows
The long-term arc of greater Democratic ambition on gun control offers one of the most dramatic measures of how the party’s shifting electoral coalition has changed its incentives on issues that divide the country along cultural lines.
In the early 1990s, when Congress last seriously addressed gun control issues, Democrats still relied heavily on working-class and rural white voters, both in Congress and in their presidential voting coalition. That made gun issues a point of often-bitter division within Democratic circles.
For more than a decade, it became conventional wisdom among Democrats that pushing for gun control amounted to electoral Russian roulette. Even when the party held unified control of the White House and Congress in 2009 and 2010, it did not seriously consider any gun control measures, largely because of concerns from its remaining rural and “blue dog” legislators.
Pressure for action grows
But the continued pulse of mass shootings — most recently in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio — has, inexorably, generated pressure for further action. And that is pushing Democrats toward more precarious ground that tests their new consensus.
The first test of these boundaries will come on a renewed effort to ban assault weapons. Virtually every Democratic presidential candidate has endorsed restoring an updated version of the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that congressional Republicans and Bush allowed to expire in 2004.
The real debate among Democrats is whether it makes sense to hold a vote before 2020 on banning assault weapons since there’s virtually no chance the Republican-led Senate will consider it. Some House Democratic leaders and gun control advocates don’t want to shift the focus from the universal background check issue, which Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, have faced growing pressure to address.
“What’s helpful is focusing on McConnell and what we’ve already passed,” said one senior Democratic aide who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Others argue that an assault ban vote could put additional pressure on the last Republicans holding suburban seats around major cities — including several in Texas — and that failing to vote would strengthen the NRA by signaling that Democrats remain nervous about the issue.
The dynamic of the 2020 presidential race, though, is that an assault weapon ban — an issue that was too hot for Obama to seriously address in either 2008 or 2012 and still faces a close call to reach a House majority — is now just the starting point for the debate.
Support among voters
Of particular importance to the 2020 Democrats, those measures draw support not only from the party’s core constituencies of minorities, young people and college-educated white women, but in the Quinnipiac polling at least 60% of college-educated white men and 66% of non-college white women also back each idea, according to detailed results they provided.
But pollsters in both parties caution that support for individual measures is only one indicator of how the gun control issue unfolds in practice. Also revealing is the overview question of whether voters worry more about protecting gun rights or regulating access to firearms.
Universal background checks draw a level of overwhelming support that is extremely rare in American politics on any issue. But beyond that, the evidence is that gun control tends to reinforce the geographic and demographic divides between the two major parties that the Trump era has already deepened.
Even if Democrats win back the presidency and recapture the Senate in 2020 while defending their majority in the House, all the gun-related ideas the Democratic presidential candidates are touting face a fundamental hurdle: Proposals such as a ban on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines — much less licensing or registration of gun owners — have virtually no chance of passing the Senate without ending the filibuster, which magnifies the influence of the small rural states most resistant to limiting gun ownership. That means if Democrats do regain unified control of government after 2020, gun control is likely to become one of the first skirmishes in a larger battle over whether the party can ever achieve its most ambitious goals while leaving the filibuster in place.