By Cameron Joseph - 01/15/13 12:37 AM EST
Gun control is turning into an early litmus test for potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidates, with a number of hopefuls rushing to establish their bona fides on the issue.
Vice President Biden is leading the charge on national legislation, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) rolled out strict gun-control proposals last week.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), two purple-state politicians sometimes mentioned as potential candidates, came out with surprisingly pro-gun-control proposals following the December shootings in Newtown, Conn.
While many of these Democrats have long supported increased gun control, their quick moves are a sign they all want to claim some credit for taking the lead on the issue.
“It’s always been a strong issue for Democratic primary voters,” said longtime Democratic strategist Steve Murphy, who has worked on a number of presidential races.
Murphy pointed out that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s (D) support for gun rights had drawn criticism in 2004 and that, in 2008, the Virginia Tech massacre had brought the issue back to the fore.
But the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School have prompted a renewed, widespread call for action that hasn’t been sounded since the early 1990s, when President Clinton — with Biden’s help — passed the first assault-weapons ban.
Steve Hildebrand, a top Obama campaign strategist in 2008, said the issue would be important to Democratic primary voters.
He emphasized that the candidate who puts out the most “holistic” approach — one that includes addressing mental-health concerns — would gain the most support.
“It is going to be a litmus test, but I think progressive voters, especially primary voters, are looking for an approach that’s more holistic,” he said.
“The first politician that steps up with something real to fix this problem is going to win some support. I’m appreciative of what Joe Biden and Barack Obama are doing, what Andrew Cuomo is leading up in New York, but it simply is one piece of it.”
Biden, a longtime proponent of gun control, presented President Obama his task force’s recommendations for curbing gun violence on Monday.
His proposals are expected to include tougher background checks for those purchasing firearms, limits on the size of magazines for semiautomatic weapons and, potentially, a renewed ban on assault weapons.
In addition, the recommendations might include ways to improve the national mental-health system and cut down on violence in the media.
Cuomo and O’Malley have long fought for increased gun control.
The two used high-profile speeches to roll out similar proposals.
Cuomo made his case in his annual “State of the State” address last week, while O’Malley made his Monday at a two-day gun-policy summit at Johns Hopkins University.
Cuomo and O’Malley went a bit further than Biden is expected to go in his proposals, both in rhetoric and in policymaking.
“I say to you: Forget the extremists,” Cuomo said in his speech. “It’s simple. No one hunts with an assault rifle. No one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer.”
New York legislators have reportedly agreed to Cuomo-proposed legislation that would increase restrictions in the state’s assault-weapons ban and decrease the maximum capacity of magazines from 10 to seven bullets.
It would also enact more stringent background checks for firearm sales, and make it easier to confine people with mental-health issues deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.
O’Malley called for a comprehensive cure for the “sickness in this country” of violent crime.
“It makes absolutely no sense, when you look at the level of carnage on our streets from guns, to blame every factor but guns,” the Maryland governor said.
O’Malley’s proposals include a requirement for many prospective gun buyers to take a mandatory gun-safety course, submit fingerprints and undergo a background check to buy a gun and get an owner’s license.
His plan also includes measures seeking to ban sales to residents with mental illnesses who have shown violent tendencies, and money for auto-locking doors and guest-check-in requirements in public schools.
Hickenlooper represents a more conservative state, but also one where both the Aurora movie theater shootings and the Columbine massacre took place.
He has called for universal background checks and legislation to speed up getting information from court proceedings involving mental-health issues into the registry for gun ownership background checks.
Hickenlooper has indicated less interest in running for president than has Cuomo or O’Malley.
Warner, who has an A rating from the National Rifle Association and is up for reelection in swing-state Virginia in 2014, came out soon after the Newtown shootings to call for a renewed discussion on firearms control.
He suggested that lawmakers consider bans on extended magazines and assault weapons, though he hasn’t been as specific as others.
Should Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decide to run, she also has gun-control bona fides.
As first lady when her husband was president, Clinton was involved in the White House’s push to pass the original assault-weapons ban.
Murphy pointed out that there are still three years until the primary seriously heats up. He also noted that the first four states to vote (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada) have strong hunting cultures, though the Democratic base is much more pro-gun-control than are general-election voters.
If major gun-control reforms aren’t passed before then, Murphy said, the issue will likely remain important in the Democratic campaign.
But he also cautioned that Democrats must be careful, in a country that is fairly evenly split on gun control, on how far they go on legislation.
“If Democrats support sensible gun measures like much stronger background checks, smaller magazines for semi-automatic weapons and even an assault-weapon ban, that’s one thing,” Murphy said. “The country is pretty evenly split when it comes to that. But if Democrats become perceived as anti-gun or anti-gun owner, that would be damaging in general elections.”