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Democrats are finally playing offense on gun control

Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Democrats are no longer afraid of guns.

After several election cycles in which Democrats rarely pushed gun control as a big issue, the third night of the Democratic National Convention showed just how much that’s changed. In one night, big-time gun control advocates — former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ), and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), among others — were slated to put a spotlight on the issue in a long segment dedicated to ending gun violence.

"In the White House, she will stand up to the gun lobby," Giffords, who was shot in an assassination attempt in 2011, said of Hillary Clinton. "That is why I’m voting for Hillary."

It’s a significant moment in terms of policy and politics: The research shows restricting access to guns can save lives, and advocates now have a big political party behind their cause. In fact, they have a party that’s willing to go on the offensive, putting the issue front and center at a big night of their convention.

Time and time again, speakers on a night dedicated to national security drew on some of the many haunting statistics related to guns: the 92 gun deaths in America a day, the 33,000 a year, the multiple mass shootings that have happened over the past few years, and so on. It was a clear message: The federal government must act on guns.

It was a long, winding road to get here, though. Since the assault weapons ban (which later relapsed) passed in 1994, Democrats have played it fairly conservatively on guns, fearing that it was a losing issue for them. It took recent events for this to change — notably, 2016 is the first presidential election since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 children and six adults.

The polls are on the Democrats’ side, but the party has long felt guns are a risky issue for them

Based on the polling alone, Democrats have long had the public behind them when it comes to gun control. According to Pew Research Center surveys, most people in the US support universal background checks, bans on assault-style weapons, bans on high-capacity ammunition clips, bans on online sales of ammunition, and a federal database to track gun sales.

A chart showing support for gun control measures.

Pew Research Center

But Democrats have long tried to keep away from the issue. There are two big reasons why.

For one, gun rights advocates have, historically, been far more passionate about this issue. As Republican strategist Grover Norquist said in 2000, "The question is intensity versus preference. You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favor of some gun controls. But are they going to vote on their ‘control’ position?" Probably not, Norquist suggested, "but for that 4-5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this."

Kristin Goss, a political scientist and author of The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know, previously suggested that a key driver of this heightened passion is a sense of tangible loss — gun owners feel like the government is going to take their guns and rights. In comparison, gun control advocates are motivated by more abstract notions of reducing gun violence — although, Goss noted, the victims of mass shootings and their families have begun putting a face on these policies by engaging more actively in advocacy work, which could make the gun control movement feel more relatable.

To compound this, Democrats have attributed, rightly or wrongly, several big election losses to support for gun control. Mike Ellis and Sarah Ferris reported for the Hill:

The party rejoiced after enacting an assault weapons ban under President Clinton in 1994, but when the Republicans trounced them at the polls later in the year, many attributed the defeat to the gun debate.

In similar fashion, Al Gore was stung for embracing gun reform as he sought the White House in 2000, losing several states –– including West Virginia and his home state of Tennessee –– where voters were exceedingly wary of his gun positions.

But based on the third day of the Democratic convention, this has changed.

Sandy Hook changed everything for Democrats and guns

In December 2012, just a month after President Obama won reelection, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 20 children, six adults, and himself. The shooting was absolutely horrifying, pushing Democrats and some Republicans to mount a new effort to pass gun control legislation and prevent more horrifying acts of violence.

The effort failed. But with every new mass shooting — most recently, the deadliest, which took place at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida — Democrats have continued their push for new gun control legislation. And with the polls on their side and mass shooting after mass shooting grabbing national headlines, they feel confident that the public is really on their side.

In some ways, the focus on mass shootings misses the bigger picture. These attacks make up a small fraction of gun deaths — less than 2 percent in 2013 — and the evidence for gun control is much better for preventing suicides and other types of gun violence.

Still, these shootings are, obviously, completely horrific, and they feed into the idea that they could happen to anyone — even kids in an elementary school. Democrats have latched on to the horror these shootings produce to push their message.

After the Orlando shooting, for example, Democrats in Congress mounted enormous efforts to force votes on gun control legislation, including a congressional sit-in. The bills they proposed ultimately failed, but it was a dramatic display of how far Democrats are now willing to go on this once-taboo issue.

President Obama, too, has repeatedly spoken about this issue, giving sorrowful speeches after every mass shooting and remarking on how his inability to pass new gun control measures is his biggest disappointment in office.

He told BBC, "If you ask where has been the one area where I feel that I’ve been most frustrated and most stymied, it is the fact that the United States of America is the one advanced nation on Earth in which we do not have sufficient, common-sense gun safety laws — even in the face of repeated mass killings."

Democrats are essentially channeling this frustration — which resurfaces after every other tragedy they feel could have been prevented or, at least, made less likely — by embracing gun control at the Democratic convention. But as old as some of these feelings may be in the face of America’s horrific levels of gun violence, the total embrace of this issue is relatively recent, tied to the mass shootings that have become so familiar to Americans.

"My oldest son is the same age as those kids in Sandy Hook," Sen. Murphy said. "He just finished first grade. My wife and I are the same age as those parents. And I am furious. I am furious that in three years since Sandy Hook — three years of almost daily bloodshed in our cities — the Republican Congress has done absolutely nothing to prevent the next massacre."

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