Democrats mulling how to approach gun control on the campaign trail this year are weighing their tough history on the subject against the burning politics of the moment.
The killings of 17 people at a Florida high school has led to an outpouring of student protests and new energy for the gun control movement. Polls show almost unanimous support for an expansion of background checks.
But the issue is a delicate one for party leaders hoping to flip both chambers in this year’s midterm elections by defeating Republicans in conservative-leaning districts where tougher gun laws can be radioactive.
As the issue continues to dominate the headlines, some Democrats back an understated approach, particularly with vulnerable Democrats like Sens. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampHarry Reid, political pugilist and longtime Senate majority leader, dies Virginia loss lays bare Democrats' struggle with rural voters Washington's oldest contact sport: Lobbyists scrum to dilute or kill Democrats' tax bill MORE (N.D.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinPelosi suggests filibuster supporters 'dishonor' MLK's legacy on voting rights Sanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown Martin Luther King III: Biden, senators need to use same energy to pass voting rights as they did for infrastructure MORE (W.Va.) up for reelection in red states.
“It's certainly more of a base issue than in years past,” said one Senate Democratic aide who works for a senator who has been mentioned as a 2020 presidential candidate.
But the aide said the strategy wouldn’t be effective everywhere.
“It’s not going to be a top-down, every-state strategy. Some places it will work — Illinois, Florida and Colorado suburban districts,” the aide said. “And other places it won’t, like North Carolina.”
Democrats paid a steep political price after championing an assault weapons ban in 1994 and are wary of energizing the GOP base.
One former Democratic leadership aide put it bluntly: “How do you keep from having a conversation about sensible changes be turned into ‘They want to take your guns away'?”
Meredith Kelly, spokeswoman for the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said the party has no plan for a national messaging strategy on gun reform, citing the “geographically and culturally diverse House battlefield.”
“For some candidates, gun violence prevention could be a much-discussed issue, particularly in the suburbs or where there’s sadly been a recent gun-related tragedy,” she said. “For others, it’s just not part of the local conversation and it won’t necessarily be the first foot they put forward in terms of messaging.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D), a Texas Blue Dog who took the lead on a House-passed bill strengthening the background check system, acknowledged the difficulties in confronting some voters who want to paint all gun reforms, no matter how narrow, as akin to confiscation.
“That message about Democrats trying to take guns away — Obama trying to take guns away, [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi trying to take guns away — that’s a message that’s been repeated over and over and over again,” Cuellar said Wednesday by phone. “You’ll get some of those extreme positions, but you’ve got to stay strong and kind of keep going and explain the situation.”
Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, said the assault weapons ban passed during the Clinton administration made Democrats “gun shy” on the reform question — and continues to do so even decades later.
“Democrats became increasingly concerned that they were on the wrong side of the gun debate and on the Second Amendment debate,” she said. “Every time there's a major event, from Columbine to Connecticut to this most recent one in Florida, they always say we’ve got to consider some reform, but they never put their shoulder to the wheel."
Yet some Democrats think gun reform is a political winner on any stage, pointing to recent polls showing overwhelming support for new gun restrictions like background checks, even among Republicans and members of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the country’s largest gun lobby.
Rep. Mike ThompsonCharles (Mike) Michael ThompsonVirginia Democrat introduces tax credit for electric commercial vehicles House Democrats introduce bill to close existing gun loopholes and prevent mass shootings Giffords group unveils gun violence memorial on National Mall MORE (D-Calif.), who heads the Democrats' gun-violence prevention task force, said he wants to keep the issue at the forefront of all voters’ minds heading into November — and he’s offering his services to do just that.
“I’m open to coming into any community to talk about gun-violence prevention,” said Thompson, a Blue Dog and Vietnam War veteran. “If a mayor, county supervisor, state legislator wants to invite me into a district that’s represented by a Republican who won’t coauthor the background check, have plane ticket, will travel.”
Echoing that message, Democratic strategist David Wade pointed to the Long Island railroad shooting in 1993 that became a galvanizing issue for Democrats to win back suburban voters.
Wade says he sees a similar movement now on the heels of last week’s tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where the authorities say a lone gunman killed 17 students and educators with a military-style rifle.
“In many places we may now be watching a rebirth of that activism and this may become an issue helping to drive our turnout and enthusiasm at the polls,” Wade said. “We shouldn’t be afraid of the issue.”
Former Rep. Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelBiden seeks to avoid referendum with sharp attacks on GOP Stopping the next insurrection A congressional Christmas miracle MORE (D-N.Y.), who has a book coming out in April called “Big Guns,” said Democrats should rely on micro-targeting in various districts and states.
“I think smart micro-targeting will elevate the issue in some districts and keep it where it is in other districts,” Israel told The Hill.
A wildcard in the debate will likely be President TrumpDonald TrumpSanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown Laura Ingraham 'not saying' if she'd support Trump in 2024 The Hill's 12:30 Report: Djokovic may not compete in French Open over vaccine requirement MORE. On the campaign trail, Trump had aligned himself squarely with the National Rifle Association and gun-rights advocates, arguing that gun violence “has nothing to do with guns.”
Since the Florida shooting, however, he’s expressed a new openness toward tougher firearm rules, endorsing bipartisan legislation to bolster background checks and directing the Justice Department to ban bump stocks — devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to fire with automatic speeds.
For Democrats hoping to run on gun reform — or for those simply trying to avoid an anti-gun label — Trump’s support for new restrictions would provide crucial “air cover,” in the words of the former leadership aide, against attacks from the powerful gun lobby. It’s cover the Democrats did not enjoy under President Obama’s failed effort to enact tougher gun laws in 2013.
“For a Democratic administration to push hard on guns was incredibly difficult. But if this administration chooses to do some sensible things, then they’ve got some room to do that,” the aide said.
“Like Nixon went to China. … It becomes doubly hard to accuse you of doing something when [Trump] is doing it.”