Earlier in the week, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law the country’s toughest assault weapons ban and limits on ammunition magazines, saying that “no one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer.” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper are also pushing gun reforms in their states.
And in Washington, Vice President Biden led formulation of the Obama administration’s plan to curb gun violence announced this week. Speaking to the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Thursday, Biden said the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 children and six adults at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school had changed the political dynamics of gun control.
“There are some who say the most powerful voice in this debate belongs to the gun lobbies and those that demand the stop to these common-sense approaches to save lives,” Biden said. “I think they’re wrong. This time — this time will not be like times that have come before. Newtown has shocked the nation. The carnage on our streets is no longer able to be ignored.”
The moves by the five men — all potential presidential candidates — mirror a broader shift among Democrats, who have generally shied away from pushing any significant gun-control legislation since Al Gore’s defeat in a 2000 campaign that included a fiery debate over weapons restrictions.
“Finally, Democrats are getting out of Plato’s cave when it comes to guns and are not fearful of their own shadow on this issue,” strategist Chris Lehane said. “Democrats used to play defense. Now you have Democrats who recognize this is a winning issue and are playing offense on the issue.”
On the Republican side, some of the potential contenders for 2016 are lying low on the issue, leaving it primarily to the National Rifle Association and conservative lawmakers without national ambitions to make arguments against further gun regulations. One exception is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who blasted Obama’s gun-safety proposals as an infringement on Second Amendment rights.
The Democratic shift is remarkable given more than a decade of near silence on gun issues within the party. During the 2000 Democratic presidential primaries, challenger Bill Bradley lured Gore into a debate over gun laws — then, as now, a hot-button culture-war issue.
“I’m not sure that it was our preference to run on guns, but it was a necessity to take a tough stand on that issue,” said Robert Shrum, one of Gore’s top strategists. “You had to. It was a litmus test in the Democratic primary.”
After Gore narrowly lost the White House, Democrats widely concluded that it was best to stay away from guns on the national level.
In 2008, the issue was so absent that Republican operatives struggled to find any video evidence of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s support for an assault weapons ban. Their best hit? An audio recording of Obama telling donors that white working-class voters sometimes “get bitter and they cling to guns or religion.”