Democrats Gamble on Guns

Pelosi gun control
U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi hugs Miyoshia Bailey of Chicago, whose son Cortez was killed by gun violence, during a press conference in Washington about gun control on December 10. Democrats are making gun control a top focus following the recent mass shootings across the country. KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

After keeping their distance from the issue for decades, Democrats are suddenly gung-ho about gun control. They don't call it that anymore—anti-gun violence is the poll-tested term—but the policies up for debate are the same. They include universal background checks for gun buyers, a national registry of gun owners, an assault weapons ban and—congressional Democrats' particular focus these days—a ban on gun sales to people on the FBI's terrorist watch list.

Already this month, House Democrats have tried, and failed, to force a vote on that last proposal seven times. They're also pushing a measure in the government spending bill, due for a vote this week, to end a ban on federal funding for gun violence research. Clearly, Democrats now think guns are a political winner.

Are they? On the three-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut—the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history—the evidence for that is still mixed. Gun control advocates point to overwhelming public support for proposals like expanding background checks for gun buyers and blocking domestic abusers from buying guns. Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, highlights public opinion on those fronts but also acknowledges that the issue of gun laws "is more contested than the policy, if that makes sense."

"It reminds me to some degree of Obamacare," says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief at Gallup. "Many of the individual provisions of the Affordable Care Act got strong approval by the public, but the overall act did not and was also very, very polarizing politically." In the same way, gun control "symbolically has a very polarizing political aspect to it," he says.

Related: Activists Renew Call For Gun Control on Third Anniversary of Sandy Hook Shooting

That makes it a tricky issue for Democrats to navigate on the campaign trail, where they want to mobilize liberal proponents of gun restrictions without ginning up those fiercely committed to defending Second Amendment rights. On that front, activists gleaned some important lessons from legislative elections in Virginia earlier this fall. The pro-gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, formed by billionaire businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, ran more than $2 million worth of broadcast, cable and digital ads in support of two Democrats running for the Virginia Senate. "As much as anything, Democrats and gun control groups were testing their ability to make gun control an effective issue for Democrats," says professor Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.

The results, says Kidd, were " a mixed bag." Democrat Jeremy McPike won the suburban North Virginia 29th District, where Everytown ran $1.5 million worth of ads, but fellow Democrat Dan Gecker lost his race for suburban Richmond's 10th District Senate seat, where the group spent $700,000. Gecker's Richmond-area district, Kidd notes, contains a chunk of urban Richmond but also includes a rural area on its western end—"old Virginia rural," he says. McPike's district, by contrast, is a combination of suburban and exurban areas. "If you support gun control, you can walk away with the data demonstrating that in particular kinds of districts, a gun control message can be effective," says Kidd. But it has to be "one that doesn't have... rural voters that are really passionate about owning guns."

Everytown spokeswoman Erika Soto Lamb notes that McPike began the race as a complete unknown going up against Manassas Mayor Hal Parrish. In its targeted voter outreach and advertising campaign, the group made sure "that guns were a central issue in that election."

"Obviously, there is a difference between Northern Virginia," with its many D.C. suburbs, "and Richmond, but this is still Virginia," Lamb says, pointing out that McPike's district was just 20 miles from the National Rifle Association's Fairfax, Virginia, headquarters.

From a national campaign perspective, Greenberg says, the gun control issue alone isn't one that motivates a lot of voters, though she says they "probably have a bit more intensity on opposition."

"It's very rare for one issue to swing an election," she says. "It really has to be embedded in a larger narrative." For Democratic strategists, gun positions can feed into a narrative that the Republican candidate is "too extreme" or more concerned with gun lobby priorities than those of the average person. "It becomes part of the evidence that somebody is completely out of touch," Greenberg explains.

The political implications of gun issues, however are still more theory than fact. Only recently have Democrats, as a party, signaled a willingness to take on gun laws, where they've feared to tread ever since the 1994 passage of the assault weapons ban. It took the tragic events at Sandy Hook to kick-start a new movement. In 2014, Washington passed the first state ballot initiative requiring universal background checks, with the support of Everytown.

Now, "when we're talking about anti-gun-violence measures on the floor, there's a parade of Democrats willing to take part. Our leading presidential candidate is making it one of her signature issues," says U.S. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who's become a leading proponent for gun control laws in Congress since Sandy Hook. "All of that would have been inconceivable five years ago, three years ago."

Greenberg agrees. "I think we're at a tipping point" where guns are now becoming an active part of the national debate and a signature dividing line between the parties, rather than one that is swept under the rug by Democrats worried about alienating white working-class voters, she says. But for Kidd, there are still questions, including "how is the public shifting and how much is the public shifting?"

The shift is complicated by another emerging trend: rising concerns over terrorism. Gallup regularly asks Americans what the "most important issue" facing the country is. "Terrorism jumped up to 16 percent" in December, Newport notes, the highest it's been since September 11, 2001. Meanwhile, "specific mentions of gun and gun violence were only at 7 percent," the same rate as October. Democrats are arguing that the two issues are linked, hence the repeated efforts to bring up the terrorist list loophole, as they call it. Republicans are trying to paint Democrats as narrowly focused on gun control instead of combating terrorism. In a December 4 interview on Fox News about the attack in San Bernardino, California, where a couple shot and killed 14 people, GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio complained that Democrats "have continued banging the drum of gun control up until today, when as every hour went by the indications were greater and greater that this was a terrorist act."

"I'd argue there's a direct correlation between the ease of which a would-be shooter can get their hands on a weapon…and the likelihood of a massive terrorist attack," Murphy counters. But he also acknowledges a political angle. "I think it's been hard to get voters to come out to the polls and vote on the issues like background checks." Murphy says guns linked to terrorism is "likely going to be a front-line issue."

He adds, "I think there's going to be a price to pay electorally for Republicans who are so concerned about gun rights that they aren't even willing to take guns away from potential terrorists."