WASHINGTON — Gun control is back as a Democratic campaign issue.
When President Barack Obama said Tuesday he’ll bypass Congress to force more background checks on gun purchases, Hillary Clinton, the leading Democrat running to replace him, thanked him on Twitter for taking “a crucial step” against gun violence and concluded that “our next president has to build on that progress — not rip it away.”
Clinton rival Bernie Sanders, who as a U.S. senator representing rural Vermont holds a more mixed record on gun control, said he, too, is with Obama because of the “moral outrage” of so many mass shootings in recent years. “A vast majority of the American people, including responsible gun owners who are sickened by the deaths of so many innocent people, agree with the common sense reforms announced today,” Sanders said. “As president, I will continue these executive orders.”
For more than two decades, Democrats have been spooked about campaigning aggressively for gun control, after voter backlash to gun limits and the rising political power of the National Rifle Association were seen as factors in Democrats losing Congress in 1994 and the White House in 2000. Going after guns didn’t fit neatly with Democrats’ efforts to win back more centrist voters in rural parts of the country.
If the current dynamic holds, this year may be different. “It now will be more of an issue than we’ve seen in the last two presidential election cycles,” said Robert J. Spitzer, author of five books on gun policy and chairman of the political science department at the State University of New York at Cortland.
Even as Republican presidential hopefuls railed Tuesday against Obama’s moves, a confluence of factors appears to be making it safer and in some cases smarter for Democrats to openly embrace gun control. They include the string of high-profile mass shootings over the past five years — from Tucson to Fort Hood to Sandy Hook to Charleston to San Bernardino — that has gripped the nation’s attention.
Meanwhile, Obama’s second-term focus on gun violence and his decision to emphasize possible solutions, such as background checks, that have broad public support, rather than more controversial policies, such as bans, have kept the issue in the spotlight.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said Tuesday’s announcement by Obama marked “the most historic day for gun violence prevention in America since the Brady Law was enacted in 1994.”
The 2016 Democratic primary also helped bring renewed attention to the issue. Clinton has championed more gun control as she has sought ways to put Sanders on the defensive with liberals to divert criticisms about her own closeness to Wall Street. That’s a safe move in Democratic primaries, and a similar dynamic also is playing out in the party’s state contests.
The increased focus on guns takes some of its cues from changing U.S. demographics, and helps explain why Democrats are giving voice to the issue. White men 55 and older are the most likely group in the U.S. to own guns, for example, while women and minority voters comprising increasing proportions of Democrats and the overall electorate.
“Hillary really was the first to step in this direction and she did it in part for intraparty politics, to outflank Bernie Sanders on the left,” Spitzer said of embracing gun control. “There is a sense that the gun issue is still complicated but it’s a good issue to rally the Democratic base. There’s still some wariness about the issue, to be sure, but the idea of the gun issue as taboo is, I think, by the boards.”
It’s not yet clear how emboldened Democrats in Senate races and other statewide contests in pro-gun states will feel to campaign on the issue. In response to Obama’s executive order, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said in a statement Tuesday that president should “work with Congress and the American people, just as I’ve always done, to pass the proposals he announced today.”
It’s also too soon to say if the eventual Republican presidential nominee will run toward or away from guns as a general-election issue, when the economy and terrorism are expected to draw much of the focus. But with less than a month before the Iowa caucuses, Republican primary competitors have been swift to attack Obama’s moves as overreaching.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz announced he’d give away one personally engraved shotgun to a lucky winner of a drawing of names who sign a “Defend the Second Amendment” pledge. The bottom of an email to prospective donors signed by Cruz also said, “P.S. If Hillary Clinton is going to join with Barack Obama and the gun grabbers and come after our guns, then I say, ‘Come and Take it.’”
Retired surgeon Ben Carson said Obama’s moves would curb the “freedom of law-abiding citizens.” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in an interview on Fox that Obama is “obsessed with undermining the Second Amendment.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the president didn’t have the authority to act, and that answer is punishing people who commit crimes with guns, not restrictions on gun owners. “It’s not going to solve any problems by having the so-called gun-show loophole be taken care of by executive order,” Bush today during a town hall meeting in Derry, N.H.
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Ohio Gov. John Kasich said while the elements of the president’s orders related to the mentally ill may have merit, he needed to go through Congress. “You can’t just be making law by executive order,” Kasich said in an interview before a campaign appearance in Manchester, N.H. “As strongly as he feels about it, you do have a thing called a Congress. This just further aggravates all those relationships.”
Obama, speaking Tuesday, said that “a majority of gun owners” support reasonable limits.” He recalled that Republicans including former President George W. Bush and Obama’s 2008 general election rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, had previously supported gun show background checks, and that the NRA previously supported expanded background checks.
“How did this become such a partisan issue?” he asked.