The Memo: Harris move shows shift in politics of gun control

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Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is the latest Democrat to demonstrate just how much the politics of gun control are shifting.

Harris, a leading 2020 presidential candidate, promised during a CNN town hall event on Monday evening that, if elected, she would take executive action to strengthen background checks and revoke the licenses of gun dealers who break the law.

The California senator said she would give Congress 100 days to tighten gun laws before stepping in.

{mosads}“Supposed leaders in Washington, D.C. … have failed to have the courage to recognize” the imperative to change the law, she said.

Harris’s approach is the latest piece of evidence showing how Democrats have become more assertive on gun control.

A generation ago, an assault weapon ban enacted during Bill Clinton’s presidency was opposed by a significant share of House Democrats. The law was passed in September 1994 — and was among the factors cited when Democrats suffered heavy losses in midterm elections two months later.

The political taint was so strong that some suggested the identification of Democrats with the cause of gun control played a part in the party’s 2000 presidential nominee, then-Vice President Al Gore, losing to Republican George W. Bush.

The experience left Democrats skittish about pursuing gun control. But that had changed, even before Harris’s latest proposal.

A number of Democrats pushing for stricter gun control laws won seats in last year’s midterm elections, including Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), whose son was killed in a shooting. 

When Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took the gavel earlier this year, she soon pushed a bill strengthening background checks, which passed with negligible Democratic opposition, and eight Republican lawmakers backing it, too.

“This used to be the third rail of politics, and that was the case for many Democrats as well as Republicans,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, which campaigns for stricter gun controls.

Feinblatt contrasted the position adopted by Harris with Democrats in previous cycles.

In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton did not make gun control a particularly prominent issue during her campaign. Neither did President Obama in 2008 or 2012.

In 2004, Democratic nominee and then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) went on a much-publicized hunting trip, dressed in camouflage clothing and carrying a shotgun, in the final month of the campaign.

Feinblatt noted this year’s Democratic candidates seemed willing to take a far more vigorous approach.

“You can contrast that with just a number of years ago, where presidential candidates had to first establish their bona fides as hunters and shooters before they talked about gun safety. … Nobody feels compelled to establish their bona fides anymore,” he said.

Advocates of gun control believe that a succession of mass killings — at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., among others — may have helped shift public opinion.

But they argue that other factors, such as the growth of pro-gun control activist groups and shifting generational attitudes, have also altered the landscape.

“Gun violence has become a kitchen table issue for American families,” said Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords, the pro-gun control group set up by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was badly injured in a 2011 shooting.

“Folks concerned about the fate of their neighborhoods, scared to send their kids to school, checking exit signs at movie theaters. There is this fear that tragedy could visit them next.”

A Quinnipiac University Poll survey released last month indicated that 93 percent of respondents nationwide — including 89 percent of Republicans — favored mandatory background checks for all gun purchases.

Still, even though there is clear reason for advocates of stricter gun controls to feel hopeful, there is significant volatility in some polling.

For example, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll in February found that 51 percent of respondents favored stricter gun laws overall, compared to 36 percent who said the laws should be left as they are and 10 percent who believed they should be less strict.

The 51 percent figure was 20 points lower than in a poll conducted by the same organizations one year before, in the immediate aftermath of the Parkland shooting.

Conservative strategists insist that Democratic candidates such as Harris are overestimating the general public’s appetite for restrictions on gun rights.

One such strategist, Keith Appell, said that Harris’s call for executive action was merely “an applause line” intended to engender enthusiasm among liberal activists.

More generally, he argued that the problem with pushing for tighter gun laws was that “the majority are going to say, ‘Why are you leaving me defenseless? I follow the law.’ I think she is underestimating that reaction.”

Appell also contended that there was, politically speaking, a “hidden problem” for Democrats on the issue: the number of women who carry guns for their own protection. 

A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that more than 1 in 5 American women own a gun.

Still, Harris and her campaign point out that her executive action plan is focused on specific issues, including near-universal background checks and closing loopholes.

They clearly believe they are onto a political winner: Her plan was emailed to supporters on Tuesday, who were encouraged to “share it with your family and friends.”

Activists insist the times have finally changed.

“The politics have changed remarkably on this issue in a short period of time,” said Ambler.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags 2020 campaign 2020 Democratic primary Al Gore Bill Clinton Donald Trump Gun control Gun rights Hillary Clinton John Kerry Lucy McBath Nancy Pelosi

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