The Democratic presidential candidates are increasingly speaking of gun violence in highly personal terms, recounting how shootings have stolen their own relatives and friends and providing an emotional underpinning to new gun-control proposals that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has been talking about how his 11-year-old nephew was shot by a 10-year-old schoolmate. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper has recalled personally dealing with a massacre that killed 12 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke, who carries a photo of a shooting victim in his wallet, unleashed an expletive-laced response to a question about President Trump’s responsibility for the tragedy in El Paso, his hometown.
The emotional language makes the stark shift in the Democrats’ message over the past half-dozen years on gun control — an issue that bitterly divides the nation, socially and culturally — all the more striking.
“Since 2008 or 2004, we’ve continued to have, both in intensity and quantity, more and more of these horrific shootings that capture the mind’s eye and public attention,” said Bullock, who runs a rural state with a strong hunting tradition. “My family hasn’t been immune from that.”
From former vice president Joe Biden’s references to his son’s death (though not from gun violence) as he called for a buyback of assault weapons, to Sen. Cory Booker’s planned speech Wednesday at a South Carolina church where nine people were killed by a white supremacist in 2015, the Democrats have turned the issue into a poignant rallying cry.
That shift has come into sharp focus after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, which left a total of 31 dead and many injured. Democratic officials hope that embracing gun control will resonate in suburban swing areas, enabling them to build on gains they made in the midterms. But there is political peril as well: Trump and his allies are eager to stoke culture wars over guns and other polarizing issues that they hope will animate the conservative base.
Bullock plans to deliver a speech in Washington on Wednesday about gun violence and the state of the Democratic Party. The governor, who favors expanding background checks on gun buyers, said he plans to share his perspective as a gun owner.
Other candidates are focusing on guns this week in their own ways. Biden, who is leading in polls, said in an interview broadcast Monday that as president, he would implement a national buyback program to reduce the number of assault weapons in circulation.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked, “So to gun owners out there who say, ‘Well, a Biden administration means they’re going to come for my guns’?”
Biden didn’t hesitate. “Bingo, you’re right,” he said, “if you have an assault weapon.”
As Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008, Biden sounded far more defensive about the notion that Democrats would come after people’s guns. “I guarantee you Barack Obama ain’t taking my shotguns, so don’t buy that malarkey,” he said at the time.
What has changed, Democrats say, is the number of mass shootings, often in places like schools or houses of worship, meaning more people have been personally affected. So it only makes sense for candidates to open up about their own feelings and experiences and embrace tighter restrictions, Democrats say.
“We all feel we know someone who has endured tragedy as a result of gun violence,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), whose state was shaken by the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which killed 20 young children and six school staffers. “Gun violence, it’s like cancer, that people feel touches and affects them personally in their own lives.”
The El Paso shooting’s emotional toll on O’Rourke, who represented the city in Congress, was evident in the hours and days that followed. He was visibly shaken at a news conference in Nevada on Saturday before heading back to Texas. “It is very hard to think about this,” he said, before lowering his head in silence.
The next day, O’Rourke had an unusually raw response to a question from a reporter who asked him what Trump could do to make things better. “What do you think?” the candidate responded in exasperation, before unleashing several vulgarities.
That anger with Trump on the part of many Democrats has infused the gun debate with more animosity and frustration than in the past. The alleged shooter in El Paso is thought to have posted an anti-immigrant screed online, portions of which mirrored Trump’s rhetoric.
There is some evidence of a political shift underway, with the public placing more trust in Democrats than Republicans on guns. A national survey of midterm voters last year by the Associated Press and Fox News found 8 percent saying “gun policy” was the most important of nine issues facing the country, and this group favored Democratic House candidates 81 percent to 17 percent.
Similarly, the national network exit poll found 10 percent of voters picking gun policy as the most important of four issues offered, with 70 percent of this group favoring Democrats and 29 percent backing Republicans.
What’s clear is that Democratic candidates are touting gun policies that would have been seen as outside the mainstream in past campaigns. Booker (N.J.), for example, released a proposal earlier this year to create a federal gun-licensing program.
“The pendulum has swung,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist who recalled “very little” talk about guns in the 2004 presidential race, when he managed Howard Dean’s campaign.
Booker plans to focus on gun violence and white nationalism in his speech Wednesday at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. The address comes a little more than four years after Obama delivered a eulogy in Charleston after the deadly shooting there.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a proposal Tuesday to expand background checks and ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, positions the Democratic field has largely embraced. Like the others, he has sought to draw a personal, if somewhat indirect, connection to mass shootings.
“I was a [high school] junior when the Columbine shooting happened. I was part of the first generation that saw routine school shootings,” Buttigieg said at last week’s debate. “We have now produced the second school shooting generation in this country. We’d better not allow there to be a third.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was accused by Hillary Clinton in 2016 of not being tough enough on guns, called for a moment of silence at a Sunday campaign event to mark the mass shooting in Dayton. A day earlier, he did the same thing after the shooting in El Paso.
“It never occurred to me that one day later we would have to do that again,” said Sanders. He bowed his head in silence, before advocating a ban on the sale and distribution of assault weapons and an expansion of background checks.
“Big picture, the fact that all of the candidates are competing to see who can be the best on this issue is absolutely a sea change in American politics,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The group helped arrange a gun safety forum in Iowa this Saturday that six candidates have so far committed to attending.
Yet some of the candidates have been less specific on guns. O’Rourke has embraced many of the same ideas as his opponents but has not done a formal policy rollout on guns. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), who has released several detailed policy proposals, has not yet issued one on guns. She plans to release such a plan before attending Saturday’s forum, a campaign spokeswoman said.
So far, there is little evidence that the heightened rhetoric is leading to new policies, given the standoff between the GOP-controlled Senate and the Democratic-led House.
“I have no confidence about the Senate on any particular issue,” said Blumenthal. “What I know for certain is gun violence prevention will be on the ballot in 2020.”
Jenna Johnson in El Paso and Scott Clement and Annie Linskey in Washington contributed to this report.