WASHINGTON — Gun control, which Democrats once shunned as an election loser, has roared back as a key issue in the presidential primary, spurred by worries about mass shootings, groundwork by gun-safety groups and Mike Bloomberg’s spending spree.
In the race to become the Democratic nominee, candidates are vying with each other to support not only the most popular measures, such as universal background checks, but also bolder measures including assault weapon bans and even requiring licenses to purchase firearms.
“Here we are in 2020, and every single presidential candidate is competing — competing — to see who can be the best on this issue,” said Shannon Watts, founder of the gun control group Moms Demand Action, the grassroots wing of Everytown for Gun Safety.
“That really was made possible by a combination of financial resources, unprecedented grassroots power and the support of over 90 percent of Americans, across party lines, who want stronger gun laws,” Watts said in a phone interview.
Every one of the top candidates running for the Democratic nomination — Joe Biden, Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — has posted extensive gun-control proposals on their campaign websites.
And Democratic candidates have faced more questions in the debates about their views on gun control than on any other social issue, according to an analysis by the Republican-oriented Winston Group polling and consulting firm.
For years Democratic candidates for Congress and the White House tended to downplay support for gun laws after President Bill Clinton blamed Democrats’ loss of the House in 1994 on the backlash to the passage of the background check law and assault weapon ban.
But that has changed in recent years.
“It’s really the confluence of three factors that really have all come together,” said Mike Siegel, a Boston University professor of community health sciences who has studied gun violence and tobacco, among other issues.
One, he said, is the public’s greater support for stricter gun laws in response to the increasingly deadly mass shootings, starting with the killing of 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and continuing with the slaying of 17 at a Parkland, Florida, high school in 2018 that launched the student-led March for Our Lives.
Another, he said, is the new muscle of gun-control groups such as Brady: United Against Gun Violence, Giffords and Everytown for Gun Safety and its partner, Moms Demand Action, which have more sophisticated and better funded organizing, lobbying and campaign spending.
And the internal infighting at the National Rifle Association has recently weakened the gun-rights group’s dominance of elections, though no one is counting them out.
Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way, said the Democratic electorate has changed, becoming more suburban with more women and more young people. He said his and other polls show them to be supportive of tighter gun laws.
The Democratic debate over gun policy also is driven by Sanders’ rivals, who have seized on gun control to criticize him for supporting the NRA earlier in his political career, including his vote in 2006 to protect gun manufacturers against lawsuits for deaths, Kessler said.
Sanders now backs most of the gun-control agenda, including an assault weapon ban.
Gun policy has become polarized, with Republicans for gun rights and Democrats for gun control, said University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato.
“Almost everyone who votes in the [Democratic] party contests is pro-gun control,” he said. “Gun control is a hot-button issue for Democrats, and the candidates will press it as much as they can.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) affirmed that view in a statement.
“Addressing the gun violence epidemic has been and will continue to be a top property for Democrats,” he said, with the aim of winning control of the Senate by flipping seats in Maine, Colorado and Arizona and other states with vulnerable Republicans.
Trump continues to mention the Second Amendment right to bear arms in his stump speech, accusing Democrats of plotting to confiscate guns. But his campaign website does not mention gun rights, only school safety, as it woos minorities, women and suburbanites.
A big factor in this election season will be money, experts acknowledged.
Already, Bloomberg has spent more than $400 million on ads to promote his candidacy which also mention his founding of Everytown for Gun Safety and his push for gun controls.
Everytown announced in January it would spend $60 million to push for stricter new gun laws on the state and federal level, starting with an $8 million investment announced Wednesday to flip the Texas state legislature by focusing on the Dallas and Houston suburbs.
Bloomberg bankrolls a quarter of Everytown’s budget, Watts said.
The NRA reported that it spent $54.5 million on the 2016 federal election, with more than $30 million of it to support Trump, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money. Its overall spending in 2016 hit $419 million.
The NRA has not announced how much it will spend in this year’s election and an NRA spokesman did not respond to questions about its plans. But its leader Wayne LaPierre has sounded the alarm to his members about the Democrats’ agenda for new gun restrictions.
“The choice is ours, as the Democrats running for the presidency have never been clearer about what they want to do with our freedom,” LaPierre said. “We must be just as clear as we stand together to vote for our freedom.”