Democrats: We can win on guns
© Greg Nash

PHILADELPHIA –– Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFBI’s top lawyer believed Hillary Clinton should face charges, but was talked out of it Harris adds key Clinton aide, women of color to 2020 campaign: report Democrats more likely Trump's foil, than to foil Trump MORE and the Democrats are taking their gun reform message full-bore into the general election, betting that a shift in voter sentiment has turned a once-toxic issue into a political winner.

Gun control has emerged as one of the most prominent pillars of Clinton's 2016 platform, partly because she used it to draw a contrast with Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersBernie Sanders to sign pledge affirming he will run as a Democrat Overnight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Drug pricing fight centers on insulin | Florida governor working with Trump to import cheaper drugs | Dems blast proposed ObamaCare changes Hillicon Valley: Microsoft reveals new Russian hack attempts | Google failed to disclose hidden microphone | Booker makes late HQ2 bid | Conservative group targets Ocasio-Cortez over Amazon MORE (I-Vt.), her former primary opponent, and his mixed voting record on the issue.

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But many leading gun-control advocates, including Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyCongress closer to forcing Trump’s hand on Saudi support House passes bill to end US support for Saudi war in Yemen This week: Border deal remains elusive as shutdown looms MORE (D-Conn.), say Clinton has made it clear the issue will remain at the top of her agenda as she battles Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration MORE and the Republicans heading into November.

“There were a lot of cynics who said, ‘Hillary Clinton’s going to drop this issue once the primary was over.’ That this was just a means to create a wedge with Sen. Sanders," said Murphy, who has become Congress’s best-known gun control advocate since the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn.

"They were wrong.”

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), a gun owner who heads the Democrats' gun violence prevention task force, delivered a similar message Tuesday, saying Clinton's dedication to the issue has given advocates fresh hope they can break a long-standing congressional impasse and adopt tougher gun laws if she wins the White House. 

"This is the first presidential nominee, in my lifetime, that came out talking about responsible gun laws," Thompson said following a gun reform rally on a sweltering morning in downtown Philadelphia. "That's huge in itself."

The heightened focus on gun reform marks a shift –– some might say a gamble –– for Clinton and the Democrats. The party rejoiced after enacting an assault weapons ban under President Clinton in 1994, but when the Republicans trounced them at the polls later in the year, many attributed the defeat to the gun debate.

In similar fashion, Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreHoward Schultz must run as a Democrat for chance in 2020 Who's painting the country red? Must be Trump For 2020, Democrats are lookin’ for somebody to love MORE was stung for embracing gun reform as he sought the White House in 2000, losing several states –– including West Virginia and his home state of Tennessee –– where voters were exceedingly wary of his gun positions.

That track record has left some conservatives practically drooling at the thought that Clinton would make gun reform a major issue of this year's campaign.

"I can’t help but feel that Hillary is misreading the public mood here," Charles Cooke wrote in National Review amid the primary.

Even gun reformers are quick to acknowledge the political blowback they once faced for supporting tougher laws. But a rash of prominent mass shootings –– combined with the daily gun violence that plagues the nation's inner cities –– has led the Democrats to shed their reluctance to tackle the issue head on.

"The anti-gun violence movement had basically been asleep in this country for about 20 years," said Murphy, explaining the Senate's inability, post-Newtown, to pass legislation expanding background checks on gun purchases. "[But] almost overnight, this issue now is –– guess what? –– a political winner at the polls." 

Public sentiment is certainly in their favor. A CNN/ORC poll conducted in June found that 92 percent of voters support an expansion of background checks to all gun buyers. A Quinnipiac University poll released the same month put the number at 93 percent –– numbers that have only emboldened Clinton and the Democrats.

"For a long time … people have been afraid of the gun lobby," Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), who represents Newtown, said Tuesday. "We're changing that this year."

On the national stage, Clinton will highlight her advocacy on Wednesday when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg addresses the Democratic convention. Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent who's endorsed Clinton, is among the country's most prominent gun control advocates, founding Mayors Against Illegal Guns in 2006.

Bloomberg has vowed to spend millions of his personal fortune to promote tougher gun laws, and has hired Newtown family members to lobby, including Erica Lafferty Smegielski, the daughter of the Sandy Hook principal killed in the 2012 attack. Like Bloomberg, she is slated to speak at the Democratic convention on Wednesday night. 

Other long-time advocates point to Clinton’s choice of running mate as proof that she is keeping the fight alive. Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Overnight Defense: Trump declares border emergency | .6B in military construction funds to be used for wall | Trump believes Obama would have started war with North Korea | Pentagon delivers aid for Venezuelan migrants Kaine asks Shanahan if military families would be hurt by moving .6B for border wall MORE (D-Va.) became a powerful advocate for gun control as Virginia governor in 2007, in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre.

“Tim Kaine is someone who has put gun violence prevention front and center,” said Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and co-founder of the nonprofit Americans for Responsible Solutions. “It says a lot about how you can run on this issue.”

Congress is also in on the act. In June, following a shooting massacre in an Orlando nightclub, House Democrats took the remarkable step of seizing the chamber floor to protest the Republicans' refusal to vote on reform bills. And the Democrats are vowing to carry that protest into the elections. 

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon who led the sit-in, encouraged advocates this week "to get in the way" and make "necessary trouble" to promote the cause.

"We have to stop the madness," he said. "We must never, ever be satisfied until we get the Congress to act."

Asked if the Democrats will stage something as dramatic as another sit-in when Congress returns to Washington in September, Lewis left the door wide open. "It's possible," he said.

Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who also helped organize the sit-in, said the tactic was devised with November in mind.

"We had the sit-in so that we would be able to define this issue and the difference between the two parties," Larson said. "The Speaker said, 'If you want a vote, win the election.' We're here to win an election."

As a sign of how far the gun reform debate has evolved, even Democrats running in purple rust-belt states are highlighting the issue this election year. 

Katie McGinty, the Democrat challenging GOP Sen. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, has repeatedly hammered her opponent for opposing legislation barring gun sales to those on the FBI terrorist watch lists. (Toomey has charted a centrist path on guns in the Senate, having co-authored legislation to expand background checks.)

And Ted Strickland, the Democrat squaring off against Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanTexas senator introduces bill to produce coin honoring Bushes GOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats Steel lobby's PR blitz can't paper over damaging effects of tariffs MORE (R) in Ohio, said Clinton's embrace of tougher laws will only help him in the campaign.

"I'm pushing hard myself," Strickland told The Hill Tuesday. "There is now an increased awareness and sensitivity that gun violence is becoming so pervasive that people want something done about it."