Just days before the 2004 election, John Kerry emerged from an Ohio cornfield wielding a double-barreled shotgun and stained with goose blood. “Everybody got one, everybody got one,” Kerry said of the four birds he and his fellow hunters had shot.
The staged photo-op, meant to showcase Kerry’s machismo and Second Amendment bona fides, is unlikely to be replicated by Democrats in the 2016 presidential election. After years of working to carefully avoid alienating gun owners, the party’s presidential candidates are racing to outdo each other with strict gun control proposals.
The shift began in earnest after the 2012 presidential race with the fatal shooting of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., and reached a peak after a deadly college campus shooting in Oregon as Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton called for a “national movement” to take on the National Rifle Association.
On Monday, Clinton put forward a plan to extend background checks on gun sales and hold gun manufacturers accountable for negligence. Although it’s unlikely to get past the Republican-controlled Congress, the plan represents a new template on the issue for Democratic presidential candidates.
“We took them on in the ’90s. We’re gonna take them on again. And I will need your help to do that,” Clinton said at Broward College in Florida on Friday.
One Clinton rival, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, has proposed even more restrictive gun control laws and boasted of passing some of the toughest laws in the country after the Newtown shooting. He brags about being featured on the cover of the NRA’s magazine with the bolded headline “Martin O’Malley: Menace to the Second.”
Even Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is known for a moderate record on gun control in hunting-friendly Vermont, delivered fiery remarks in Boston on Saturday calling for extended federal background checks and ending “the sale and distribution of semi-automatic weapons whose only goal is to kill people.”
“If we do all of these things we can lessen the likelihood of these horrendous disasters,” Sanders said Saturday.
For critics of gun control, Democrats’ call for greater restrictions in the wake of the Newtown and Oregon shootings politicize the tragedies. They argue guns help protect Americans faced with violence, an argument that polls show many Americans agree with. Democratic candidates are unfazed by this opposition.
It’s a departure from the stance Democrats have taken for years, when they tended to tread carefully on the issue of gun control, afraid of arousing the ire of rural white voters and losing swing states like Ohio or Colorado. Presidential candidates from Al Gore to Hillary Clinton in 2008 sounded moderate tones on gun control, and were often eager to flaunt their pro-Second Amendment bona fides.
But a series of mass shootings in recent years has shifted public opinion on the issue, emboldening gun control activists, who have scored victories at the state level even while federal momentum has stalled.
“In 2008, presidential candidates were not talking about gun violence. As we look ahead to 2016, they are talking about it,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun safety advocacy group that grew out of the Newtown shootings. “This is a sea change in American politics and a sea change in politicians’ calculus about whether it depresses turnout.”
Democrats’ recent caution over gun control dates back to major election losses at the state and federal level in the Bush era. When Al Gore lost the 2000 election and Democrats failed to retake the House of Representatives, Democrats blamed the defeat on his pro-gun control stances, which stemmed from the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.
President Bill Clinton, a staunch gun control advocate himself, offered a dispiriting post-election autopsy for supporters of more restrictions. The NRA and gun lobbyists, he said in 2001, “probably had more to do than anyone else in the fact we didn’t win the House this time, and they hurt Al Gore.”
Four years later, John Kerry went on a hunting photo-op and firmly insisted that he was pro-gun and pro-Second Amendment. “Let me be clear. I support the Second Amendment. I am a gun owner. I am a hunter,” Kerry said during that election. During the 2008 election, then-Sen. Obama backed off his 1990s-era support for a ban on the sale and possession of handguns.
Hillary Clinton’s shifting rhetoric on gun control offers a good measure of the changes in the Democratic position.
As a candidate for Senate in 2000, she advocated for a federal gun registry. But eight years later, during a bruising primary election with Obama, she took a more moderate tone on gun control. She said she “wholeheartedly” supported the Second Amendment, and wanted to see a “meeting of the minds” between gun owners and safety advocates.
“We really should have a summit where everybody comes together on all sides of this issue and let’s figure out how we can be consistent with the Second Amendment, which I wholeheartedly support, and do more to keep people safe,” she said in Feburary 2008.
Clinton backed off her earlier support for a federal registry of gun ownership. She won big states with strong pro-gun stances and large rural white populations, like Ohio, West Virginia, Nevada, Kentucky and others.
The Newtown shooting marked a turning point on the issue, however. In the wake of the massacre, a Gallup poll showed a jump in support for stricter laws on the sale of firearms, with nearly two-thirds of adults backing expanded background checks, which ultimately failed to pass Congress. President Obama pressed Congress hard to pass stricter gun control measures, which ultimately failed in the Senate despite gaining a 54-vote majority.
Meantime, a number of well-funded gun control advocacy groups arose after of the shooting, including Everytown in 2014, an alliance between Moms Demand Action Action for Gun Sense and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which dates back to 2006.
Successful gun safety ballot initiatives in a number of states were faced with hard-fought challenges from the NRA, but gun lobbies were ultimately unsuccessful in stopping them. Voters in Washington last year overwhelmingly supported mandatory background checks on private gun sales, and a law passed in Oregon this year requiring universal background checks.
A number of other states, including Delaware, Colorado, Illinois and Maryland, have expanded some form of gun restrictions since 2012.
Now, as Democrats are engaged in the first competitive primary since Newtown, gun control has become a presidential campaign issue as well.
“The Democrat who thought he or she could in essence placate the gun lobby found out it really wasn’t the case,” said Daniel Webster, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. As to Clinton, “you’re clearly seeing someone who is not as cautious as she was in 2008.”
With mass shootings continuing to happen, the rhetoric around the debate has only intensified on the Democratic side.
On Monday, Clinton choked up while bringing on stage the mother of a 6-year-old boy killed at Newtown. “So many of the parents of these precious children who were murdered have taken the unimaginable grief they have been bearing and have tried to be the voices that we need to hear,” Clinton said.