Washington –For the first time, the issue of gun violence is taking a prominent role in the race for the White House — the result of activism spawned by the massacres in Parkland, Fla., Newtown and other mass shootings.
For 15 minutes candidates at the first Democratic presidential debate Wednesday night spoke extensively about gun control, competing to define themselves on the issue.
That’s quite a difference from four years ago, when Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders only briefly debated the issue of guns. No other presidential candidate has made gun violence a major element of an election campaign in the past.
“We have shifted the conversation ever since Sandy Hook so that Democrats would not run away from the issue,” said Po Murray, chairwoman of the Newtown Action Alliance.
At Wednesday night’s debate, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker brought up his plan to require a license to own a gun, saying states like Connecticut have already taken that step, seeing a 40 percent drop in gun violence and a 15 percent drop in suicides.
“If you need a license to drive a car, you should need a license to buy and own a firearm,” Booker said. Connecticut requires a license to own a handgun or assault rifle, but not a shotgun or hunting rifle.
While all Democrats on the debate stage support greater federal restrictions on gun sales, including expanded FBI background checks of gun buyers, there are differences among the candidates..
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a moderate, said she looks at gun control proposals and asks herself “does this hurt my Uncle Dick and his deer stand, coming from a proud hunting and fishing state?”
Yet Klobuchar, and other Democrats on the debate stage Wednesday night said they support an assault weapons ban and credit the students of the Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Florida, where a shooter killed 17 people, for changing public opinion on gun control.
“When I was in the Senate, I saw those moms from Sandy Hook come and try to advocate for change, and we all failed,” Klobuchar said. “And then now these Parkland kids from Florida, they started literally a national shift. You know why? It’s just like with gay marriage. When kids talked to their parents and their grandparents, they say I don’t understand why we can’t put these sensible things in place, they listen.”
But Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, avoided answering moderator Chuck Todd’s about what the federal government should do “about the hundreds of millions of guns already out there” if an assault weapons ban is put in place.Warren instead talked about the need to treat gun violence as a public health emergency that requires more research.
“You know, guns in the hands of a collector who’s had them for decades, who’s never fired them, who takes safety seriously, that’s very different from guns that are sold and turned over quickly,” Warren said.
Despite differences in positions, Democratic candidates have put gun control, an issue avoided for years in presidential campaigns, front and center.
After a Democratic Congress approved a tough gun bill in 1994 that imposed a 10-year ban on the “manufacture, transfer, and possession” of certain semiautomatic firearms – a ban that has not been renewed – Democrats suffered heavy electoral losses.
The National Rifle Association, which targeted lawmakers who voted for that bill, got richer and larger and its political clout grew. But now the NRA is beset with turmoil as its top lobbyist resigned from the organization this week. The organization has also recently closed its television arm, fired its longtime advertising agency and forced the resignation of its president, Oliver North.
Meanwhile, public sentiment for federal action on gun control is getting stronger – and for some measures that support is bipartisan. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center shows large majorities in both parties favor preventing people with mental illnesses from buying guns, barring gun purchases by people on federal no-fly or watch lists, and endorse background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows.
But the Pew polls also showed more Democrats than Republicans, 65 to 32 percent, agreeing gun violence is a “very big” problem in the country.
“You cannot be a Second Amendment fan, just like you can’t be a right-to-lifer and have any hope in a Democratic contest,” said Ron Schurin, a University of Connecticut political science professor.
Schurin said the 2014 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed 20 first graders and six educators makes gun control “resonate more in Connecticut than other places.”
“Here in Connecticut, the more anti-gun you are, the better,” Schurin said of the candidates for the Democratic primary. “Who will win votes just on that issue? I’m not really sure. But [Democrats] do want people to know they have a deep understanding of the issue.”