The politics of guns on the national stage are changing. Fast. And when Democratic presidential hopefuls got together in Las Vegas earlier this month to discuss gun policy the shift was crystal clear.
Instead of running away from the issues, as the Democratic Party has for years, many of the candidates tried to one up each other on their gun control cred.
“There’s too much power in the hands of the gun industry and the gun lobby and we’ve got to fight them and we’ve got to break that,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in her address at the forum organized by gun control advocacy groups Giffords and March For Our Lives
Her main rival, former Vice President Joe Biden pledged $900 million for gun violence prevention during his remarks. And former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke doubled down on his controversial pledge to force owners of military style assault rifles to sell their guns back to the government.
“Those Second Amendment rights don’t trump our right to live,” O’Rourke said.
— Guns & America (@GunsReporting) October 16, 2019
Until recently, gun control was a politically toxic, even intractable issue, yet now it’s is now front and center. More and more candidates even see gun control as a winning issue at the ballot box.
A microcosm of that shifting political ground can be found right where the Democratic candidates were speaking, within sight of the blinking lights of the Las Vegas Strip.
Clark County Nevada is the epicenter of a sea change in gun policy for normally firearm friendly Nevada; One that was seen in the wake of the 2018 midterm elections.
Nevada State Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui knows this well. The Democrat represents part of the Las Vegas suburbs. She spearheaded a sweeping gun reform package that passed this year. It included a so-called red flag law, rules on safe storage of firearms, and even lowering the legal blood-alcohol content allowed when carrying a firearm.
Jauregui said the opening came after the 2018 midterm elections when, like much of the country, Nevada saw big gains for Democrats.
"Nevada elected gun safety champions up and down the ballot, they elected their first democratic governor in 20 years," she said.
But Jauregui is not just a gun control advocate, she’s a mass shooting survivor. She and her husband had to run for their lives on Oct. 1, 2017, when a gunman opened fire at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas, killing 58 people. It remains the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. And it helped tip the balance of the gun debate in Nevada.
The changes are all the more remarkable given the gun-friendly history of the state. Jauregui sees that as a potential bellwether for further gains by gun rights lawmakers across the country.
“We are still very much the west,” she said. “We are very much a wild west state still but that goes to show that if we can do it in Nevada, we can do it in every other state. And if we can do it in Nevada, we can do it on the federal level.”
Indeed, similar shootings around the country have spurred gun control groups to take an aggressive political stance, starting with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012..
That movement built over the years, reaching a high-water mark in the 2018 midterm elections, when candidates backed by gun control groups helped Democrats retake the House of Representatives.
Cassandra Crifasi, the deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center For Gun Policy and Research, says she’s seen a change in recent elections among those who are highly motivated by gun issues.
"Single issues voters have often or almost exclusively been on the side of protecting gun rights or advancing policies that make it easier for folks to get guns,” she said. “And now, we’re seeing the flipside.”
Crifasi says part of what’s driving that is more sophisticated polling. In the past, such polls simply asked if people supported or opposed “gun control,” which means different things to different people. Better polling and more detailed questions, have shown many gun control measures enjoy overwhelming support, even among gun owners.
"All of this is coming together and allowing politicians to feel confident in speaking about advancing evidence based policy without the fear that they’re going to lose their election,” she said.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) October 16, 2019
And for those that tuned into the Vegas Forum or have been watching the candidates on the campaign trail recently, you might have noticed a new strategy at play: Candidates and activists alike are talking about making gun control a top issue, in line with the economy and healthcare.
"We’ve gone in a very short time from just a few years ago this issue being treated like a third rail to today where it’s a kitchen table issue for a lot of families across America,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the powerful gun control group, Giffords.
The group, founded by Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz, who herself survived an assassination attempt in 2011, organized the Democratic candidate forum. Ambler said his organization is especially targeting Democrats and Independents, who he says are opposed to hardline gun rights views.
Ambler said many have gone from passive support for gun control to seeing it as a vital issue.
"What we had before was a situation where while voters said that they wanted these policies they weren’t identifying them previously as issues they were willing to hold their vote over on. But today that’s changed,” he said.
This comes after a long-time aversion among Democrats to wading into gun debates. Robert Spitzer, a political science professor and author of five books on gun policy, says much of that is a long hangover from the 2000 election, when Al Gore loudly supported gun control only to lose a contentious election to George W. Bush.
"And so the Democrats studiously avoided the gun issue throughout the Bush era and for that reason, in part, it really led to the ascendance of the gun rights side of the debate nationally,” Spitzer said.
It took until the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school massacre for that notion to change, according to Spitzer. And after the 2018 midterms, a switch went off for a lot of politicians. Even some Republicans have shown support for limited gun restrictions.
"I think this has opened the door for a time when the gun issue not only is not a third rail but is actually a main rail for candidates seeking public office,” he said.
Groups like Giffords have also been aided by turmoil at the National Rifle Association. The nation’s main gun lobby has been riven by scandal, internal strife and financial woes. And gun control advocates have taken a page out of the NRA playbook: spending on competitive elections.
In 2018 midterms, gun control groups outspent the NRA. That was a stunning reversal from 2016 when the NRA poured tens of millions of dollars into the presidential race on behalf of Republican Donald Trump.
But Crifasi, of Johns Hopkins, says Democrats would be wise to avoid anything too extreme. She says former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s call to take away military-style weapons plays right into the NRA’s hands.
“The drum that they beat that if you allow any [gun control] policy to pass then they’re just going to take your guns away,” she said. “Then when we have candidates that say yes, well I am going to take your guns away, that doesn’t send the right message in my opinion.”
And with President Donald Trump having resisted most calls for gun control, all of it might be moot for Democrats if they can’t win back the White House in 2020.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.