(Bloomberg) -- Democratic presidential hopefuls are embracing gun control as the 2020 campaign accelerates, deepening the divide in U.S. politics between rural areas with a rich gun culture and urban and suburban areas where the mood has turned in favor of tougher laws.
Bolstered by shifting public sentiment, the candidates are increasingly championing gun limits including universal background checks and bans on military-style assault weapons. The shift follows high-profile mass shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Las Vegas, Nevada, and comes as the National Rifle Association’s political influence wanes.
Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders, who previously dismissed calls for tougher firearms restrictions, is now promising to "move aggressively" to combat gun violence, telling a crowd in Wisconsin this month that if he’s elected president, "people who should not have guns will not have guns." Other top contenders -- including California Senator Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke -- are also running on toughening gun laws.
Democrats have long tread carefully on gun control and there still is risk for the party’s presidential candidates despite broad public support for firearms limits. The issue elicits intense sentiment among single-issue gun rights voters who reliably turn out in elections. That may come into play in three pivotal 2020 states with significant rural populations, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Sanders encapsulates the party’s shift in recent years. After the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, the Vermont senator said gun control wasn’t one of his major issues and questioned whether stricter laws would reduce firearm violence. During his 2016 White House bid, he was hammered by rival Hillary Clinton for pro-gun votes like supporting a 2005 bill that shielded gun makers and dealers from liability if their weapons were used for criminal purposes. He backtracked and called for repealing that law.
Harris said Monday she would bypass Congress and impose new gun limits by executive action if she’s elected president and Congress fails to act in her first 100 days. She said she’d require background checks for sellers of five or more firearms per year and close the "boyfriend loophole" by barring gun sales to dating partners convicted of domestic violence.
"Upon being elected, I will give the United States Congress 100 days to get their act together and have the courage to pass reasonable gun safety laws, and if they fail to do it, then I will take executive action," Harris, who owns a gun for personal protection, said. She accused Republicans of lacking "the courage to act" on gun violence.
Representative Eric Swalwell of California, who is making gun control the central focus of his long-shot presidential bid, has called on the government to seize military-style assault weapons and pay the owners. Other Democrats haven’t gone that far.
Gun policy ranked fourth on the list of top issues cited by in the 2018 election, and those who cited it as their biggest concern backed Democrats 70 percent to 29 percent, according to exit polls published by CNN. Voters in gun-owning households backed Republicans by 25 points, while voters who don’t have a gun in their home voted Democrat by 46 points.
A 2018 exit poll by NBC News found that 60 percent of voters favored stricter gun control, while 36 percent oppose it.
“Democrats have been emboldened on it. It was certainly a galvanizing force in the suburbs, especially among suburban woman. And Democrats weren’t afraid to press the issue, which they have been in the past,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican consultant who served as communications director of the House GOP’s 2018 campaign arm.
“It certainly added fuel to the fire of the Democratic enthusiasm,” he said.
But Gorman said it’s less clear how the issue of guns will play in 2020, arguing that it’ll likely motivate voters in both parties.
Trump flirted with tougher gun control laws last year after the Parkland shooting, proposing to raise the minimum age for buying a rifle to 21 and to take away guns without due process from people suspected as dangerous. He reversed course after a backlash from conservatives and a private meeting with the National Rifle Association’s top lobbyist. He is gearing up to run for re-election as an ironclad supporter of the Second Amendment, with the aim of keeping armies of pro-gun-rights voters mobilized in 2020.
At a rally last fall in Tennessee, Trump said the Democratic Party has been "completely taken over by the resistance" and would threaten gun rights.
"They’ll take everything, including your Second Amendment," he said.
Democrats point to polls showing broad public support for stricter gun laws.
“This is a gun-happy nation and people are becoming more and more concerned with it,” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said in an interview. “And the strident objections to doing anything about it have less credibility.”
From 2007 to 2011, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives but made no effort to tighten gun laws. In the two years they had majorities in the House and Senate, the only gun-related measures they passed were to loosen firearm limits — one allowed loaded guns in national parks and another permitted guns in checked baggage on Amtrak. That’s partly because the party’s majority at the time hinged on seats in rural and culturally conservative areas.
Former President Barack Obama avoided the issue of firearms in his 2008 and 2012 elections, although he became more vocal for gun control in his second term after gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. He later said his biggest frustration as president was the failure to toughen up gun laws.
A political and cultural realignment since then has helped Democrats gain solid footholds in upper-income and educated suburbs like California’s Orange County and Virginia’s Fairfax County, which used to be Republican bastions but have less of an attachment to gun rights. Meanwhile, Republicans have taken over in rural areas where Democrats held seats in the past, like southern Arkansas and northern Michigan.
On Feb. 27, the Democratic-led House passed legislation to close loopholes that allow gun transfers without a background check. The vote was 240-190, with just two Democrats voting against it: Minnesota’s Collin Peterson and Maine’s Jared Golden, both of whom represent rural districts. Eight Republicans from suburban or competitive districts voted for it.
But the bill isn’t going anywhere in the Republican-led Senate, and the White House has threatened to veto it, assuring that it’ll be fought over in the 2020 election.
“Now we need to change the Senate and the occupant of the White House to get that done,” O’Rourke said last week at a campaign event in Alexandria, Virginia. “An issue that we talked about in Texas — not easy to talk about in Texas, very necessary to talk about in Texas — is the fact that we still continue to sell weapons of war that were designed and engineered to be sold initially to the United States military because they’re really good at killing people, very effectively, very efficiently, and in great numbers.”
Michael Bloomberg, owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, founded and helps fund Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for universal background checks and other gun control measures.
--With assistance from Emma Kinery.
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