It’s unclear how many more Americans need to die from gun violence before Donald Trump and the GOP support measures to end the carnage, but thankfully the 2020 Democrats have made championing laws to reduce gun violence a key issue. This is a far cry from past presidential campaigns, when Democrats feared that addressing guns would cost them politically.
Over the weekend, Joe Biden abandoned his “let’s work with the GOP to find common ground” approach and instead made it clear on gun safety issues such as banning assault weapons that “I think there's no compromise. This is one we have to just push and push and push and push and push.”
Elizabeth Warren recently rolled out a detailed plan to reduce gun violence by 80 percent that includes not just an assault weapons ban, but raising taxes on gun manufacturers and establishing a federal licensing system for gun owners. As Warren stated over the weekend, “We need to treat this as the public health emergency that it is.”
Bernie Sanders, who was criticized by some during the 2016 campaign for his past refusal to support certain gun safety measures, has gone all in, calling for an assault weans ban, expanded background checks, and a voluntary government buyback of assault weapons. Beto O’Rourke took it a step further, calling for a “mandatory” buyback of assault weapons by the government with the goal being to fully remove these “weapons of war” from the general population.
The boldness of these Democrats and others in the 2020 field, from Julian Castro to Cory Booker, in addressing this issue is remarkable when you compare it with the timidity of past Democratic presidential candidates. No doubt the past hesitancy to fully embrace this issue came from a place of fear.
After the 1994 ban on assault weapons was passed by the Democratically controlled Congress, the very next election Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. In his 2004 autobiography, Bill Clinton summed up why that midterm loss scared Democratic candidates away from championing gun control: “The NRA could rightly claim to have made [Newt] Gingrich the House speaker.”
It’s no surprise that future Democratic presidential candidates shied away from the issue. In the 2004 election, John Kerry spent a great deal of time touting the fact that he was a “lifelong hunter” and telling a publication a month before the election that he owned an assault weapon. Only in the closing weeks of the campaign did he criticize President George W. Bush for allowing the assault weapons ban to expire.
In 2008, Barack Obama did vow to ban assault weapons if elected. But once in office with a Democratically controlled Congress for the first two years, neither he nor then Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted to push for a vote on the ban, for fear it would hurt rural House Democrats and undermine other legislative priorities. In fact, The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which had endorsed Obama in 2008, gave him an “F” for his first year in office for failing to push for gun safety laws.
When Obama ran for re-election in 2012, he was asked during a presidential debate about his failure to enact an assault weapons ban. Obama began by responding, “I believe in the Second Amendment,” acknowledging the long tradition of using weapons for hunting and self-defense. He went on to reaffirm his commitment to ban assault weapons, but added there needed to be a “broader conversation” about reducing gun violence, noting that, “in my home town of Chicago, there’s an awful lot of violence and they’re not using AK-47s. They’re using cheap hand guns.”
In 2016, it was more of the same, with Hillary Clinton declaring at the Democratic National Convention, “I’m not here to repeal the Second Amendment. I’m not here to take away your guns.” She did support an assault weapons ban, but gun laws were certainly not a focus of her campaign.
Things have clearly changed since 2016. Why? Well, the body count for one. In 2018, there were 340 mass shootings, almost one a day. (Mass shootings are defined as a single incident in which four or more people are shot.) Some of these incidents—such as the Parkland High School shooting and Tree of Life synagogue white supremacist terror attack—grabbed headlines for days, but many others did not. Alarmingly in 2019 we are on pace to see even more mass shootings than last year, with more than one per day.
It’s no surprise that public opinion has now shifted in favor of tightening gun laws. While 90 percent of Americans have long supported universal background checks, an August Fox News poll found 67 percent now support an assault weapons ban, up from 54 percent in 2017. A recent Quinnipiac poll found 82 percent support requiring a license for people to purchase guns while other polls found solid support to ban high capacity magazines.
Perhaps one reason that 2020 Democratic candidates are being so outspoken is that the NRA is in disarray. It’s unlikely they can spend the $70 million they did in 2016 to help pro-NRA Republicans, with $30 million of that going to help Trump.
The 2020 Democrats must continue to make reducing gun violence a central issue, even in the general election. It’s not just good politics, it’s great policy. And with polling showing a solid majority of independents and an overwhelming number of Democrats supporting new laws to address gun violence, it’s time for Republicans to fear the wrath of voters for choosing the NRA over protecting American lives.