For six years, Rep. Mike Thompson’s job as House Democrats’ point man on combating gun violence amounted to stretches of obscurity punctuated by tragedy.
As leader of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, he convened countless meetings of lawmakers, experts, advocates and victims, trying to build support for some kind — any kind — of gun control legislation. And when a mass shooting occurred, he stepped forward alongside Democratic leaders to explain the need for the kind of action the House Republican majority had no interest in taking.
Thompson (Calif.) recalled a meeting with then-Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) shortly after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, the tragedy that spurred the task force’s creation.
“He was very candid,” Thompson said of Boehner. “He said, ‘There’s not an appetite on my side of the aisle to deal with this — it’s not a front-burner issue.’ So we just kept plugging away, plugging away. And you saw what happened in the midterms.”
Democrats’ sweeping 40-seat pickup in the November election has paved the way for the first House votes on substantial firearms legislation in more than a decade this week. On Wednesday, lawmakers passed a bill that would broaden federal background checks for firearms purchasers, and on Thursday, they are likely to back legislation that would expand the amount of time federal authorities have to complete those checks.
But despite a sea change in gun politics — one that helped deliver the House majority to Democrats and has increased the task force’s ranks to 172, nearly three-quarters of the caucus — top leaders are determined to move cautiously. They have not announced firm plans for further gun votes, and prominent voices on the issue are hardly talking about action on aggressive measures such as an assault weapons ban that have long been liberal lodestars.
Their caution — which extends from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) to Thompson to outspoken freshmen such as Reps. Lucy McBath (Ga.) and Jason Crow (Colo.) — stands in sharp contrast to other pockets of the Democratic caucus. On health care and climate change, for instance, liberals have been emboldened to push the envelope of what is possible, offering far-reaching proposals such as the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all.
On gun control, leading Democrats are instead talking about incremental steps — measures such as “red flag” laws that allow courts to seize weapons temporarily from dangerous people, or a closure of the “boyfriend loophole,” which allows some domestic abusers to own guns. Even so, the bills are unlikely to receive consideration in the Senate, where Republicans have a 53-seat majority and legislation typically needs 60 votes to pass.
“Speaker Pelosi and the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force are moving strategically, and they are moving thoughtfully,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy group founded by former New York mayor Michael A. Bloomberg that works closely with Democratic lawmakers. “I think it’s going to be step by step, and I think that what you’re going to see is the leadership look at the data — look at what’s most important from a policy perspective and gauge what the public wants most.”
The rationale for that pragmatic approach is partly rooted in history, when Democrats endured drubbing after drubbing in rural districts and states where the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun organizations mobilized voters against their candidates. Many rural and suburban Democrats remained in a defensive crouch, which helped explain why, during their last House majority from 2007 to 2011, party leaders never brought a gun bill to the floor — even when the party held the presidency and a Senate supermajority, as well.
“It was the most productive Congress in the history of the republic, and what did they do on guns? Absolutely nothing,” said Peter Ambler, a former Democratic congressional aide who is now executive director of Giffords, another gun-control advocacy group. “Not only did they do nothing, it wasn’t even on the table. . . . I don’t even remember a single discussion about even whether we ought to bring guns for a vote.”
The politics began to shift in 2010, when the Republican midterm wave significantly thinned the ranks of moderate “blue dog” Democrats. A further shift came after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, in which a gunman killed 20 children and six adults and spurred some reliably pro-gun Democrats to split with the National Rifle Association for the first time.
That included Thompson, a Vietnam infantry veteran who represents the rural heart of California wine country and frequently talks about his history as a gun owner. Hanging on a wall in his Capitol Hill office is a framed Sonoma Magazine spread of Thompson holding a 20-gauge Browning shotgun — the very image of “responsible gun ownership” Democrats have long sought to embrace.
But as the politics have continued to evolve, the face of gun control has changed, too. Continued mass shootings have elevated the issue among suburban voters, and some breakout Democratic stars of the 2018 House campaign ran firmly and unapologetically on new gun laws without nodding to the sanctity of the Second Amendment.
McBath, in particular, has emerged as a leading voice on the issue barely two months into her term. A flight attendant who turned to full-time advocacy after her son Jordan Davis, 17, was fatally shot in 2012, McBath has been named a vice chair of the task force and won a seat on the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over gun legislation.
But McBath, too, said she is eager to move carefully, looking for bipartisan areas of compromise while building a big-tent coalition.
“The face of what gun violence prevention looks like is changing,” she said. “We need survivors like me; we need other survivors. That element is crucial, it’s key, because we’ve lived it and we’re not just statistics and just numbers. But we need the force and the help of gun owners and people that are NRA members and people that are just common everyday people.”
McBath is among the 190 Democratic co-sponsors of a recently introduced bill to ban assault weapons, but that is legislation that neither McBath, Thompson nor leading advocates discuss when they contemplate their next steps.
For one thing, persuading28 other Democrats to support that legislation, giving it the margin it needs to pass, is a tall order — especially as long as Senate passage and a presidential signature remain pipe dreams.
Although the ranks of rural Democrats have dwindled, there are still enough to make a difference. Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) said he planned to vote Wednesday for the expanded background checks but remained undecided on extending the review period on red flag laws. And he said he firmly opposes a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
“I’m not big on going a whole lot further than what we’re talking about here right now,” Schrader said. “You know, the Second Amendment’s pretty crystal clear. I want to make sure the right people have weapons to defend themselves and enjoy themselves, and that people who shouldn’t have them don’t have them. And that’s where these bills are.”
Democrats on the presidential campaign trail are being less cautious. Every senator who has announced or is contemplating a 2020 campaign has co-sponsored a bill sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) that would ban assault weapons. One House member entertaining a bid, Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.), has considered not only a ban, but a mandatory buyback of existing assault weapons — endorsing the kind of government confiscation gun rights supporters have long warned voters about.
That represents a wholesale shift from past Democratic campaigns that tread carefully on the issue, in part because they were wary of alienating voters in rural Iowa and New Hampshire.
“You aren’t going to see Democrats running ads with hunting rifles in their arms or telling stories about how they go up shooting with their parents — I don’t think those are going to be part of the ads for 2020,” Feinblatt said.
Thompson said that if gun control advocates want to make progress, it remains imperative to pursue measures that can attract Republicans and pro-gun Democrats such as Schrader. And that, he said, is where his infantry-veteran, shotgun-toting bona fides matter.
“Nothing is going to happen unless it’s bipartisan,” he said. “So if somebody else is doing this, and they don’t know about guns, and they don’t know about the gun culture, and they don’t have friends on the other side of the aisle who know about and care about guns, I don’t think it goes very far.”