WASHINGTON — Just a few hours after a gunman shot and killed two Virginia TV reporters live on air Aug. 26, while the details of the shooting were still a confusing mess, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took to Twitter.
Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, started talking about gun control and a political solution to the Virginia deaths. She had talked about it before then, and since then, she's unveiled a set of gun control measures. President Obama expressly promised to "politicize" the Oregon deaths in his first remarks following the murders last week, the latest in a series of emotional speeches he's delivered after mass shootings. These days, they’re just the two most prominent Democrats of the many elected officials willing to talk about gun control early and often.
This is the sound of the new gun control political safety net working, say advocates and Democratic political strategists.
That Democrats move instantly to politicize shootings — and invite the sustained criticism of gun rights supporters, who view the move as callous at best and calculated at worst, for doing it — is now an expected part of the national debate. Not too long ago, it really wasn’t. Democrats might say they’d be interested in exploring gun control if asked about it, or start any conversation about gun control by talking about their own firearms collections, or say that the untenable politics made the idea unrealistic. It wasn’t something Democrats generally brought up on their own and it wasn’t a topic they were especially interested in dwelling on.
Over the last few years, advocates and activists have worked hard behind the scenes to show politicians likely to support new gun laws that politicizing won’t hurt them and that the gun industry lobby isn’t as powerful as they thought. Groups like Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords, a mass shooting victim, and her husband, Mark Kelley, and Everytown for Gun Safety, founded and supported by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, are regularly meeting with top staff in Democratic circles to discuss messaging strategy, and trying to prove the gun lobby can be beaten by funding state-level political action and touting it to national party strategists.
Those efforts, President Obama’s personal commitment to the cause, and the victories of a handful of Democratic governors who’ve run on gun control messages have gone a long way in changing the Democratic conversation.
“People have some air cover now,” said a senior Democrat in the orbit of Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, who won re-election in 2014 after championing a slew of gun control laws after Newtown. The National Rifle Association targeted Malloy — as well as Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who also supported and signed new gun laws — but both men won their elections in a dark year for Democrats. Smarter, more powerful gun control advocates helped, said the Malloy source.
“There’s an additional savvy to them,” the source said, referring to the new gun control advocates at Americans for Responsible Solutions and Everytown. “They’ve got good methodologies, good polling, good tactics, and they’ve got money. That was something the NRA had institutionalized.”
Obama turned Democrats back to gun control with his forceful but ultimately unsuccessful push for it after Newtown in early 2013; Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe won as a gun control Democrat in a purple state in late 2013. Observers in Democratic politics and the gun control community argue both events helped make the party comfortable with making shootings political once again.
McAuliffe’s good friend, former president Bill Clinton, once signed the 1994 crime bill that in Democratic mythology helped cost the party the Congress in Bill Clinton’s first midterm elections thanks to its gun control provisions and subsequent NRA backlash. When Obama steered the party back toward gun control in January 2013, the first real Democratic efforts in the area since that bill, Bill Clinton urged caution in meetings with Obama supporters. By early 2014, Bill Clinton was headlining an Americans for Responsible Solutions fundraiser in New York City and giving advice on Democrats can do more to pass restrictions on gun purchases.
In between came McAuliffe’s election. Running for governor in the state that’s home to NRA headquarters, McAuliffe promised expanded background checks and a return to the state’s defunct one-handgun-per-month purchase limit. He celebrated his low grades from the gun lobby and bet that voters for whom gun control is on the list of policy priorities would outvote the single-issue firearms voters gun rights groups like the NRA had successfully turned out for years. McAuliffe won his election.
According to an attendee who related the story to BuzzFeed News last week, Bill Clinton held an impromptu strategy session with Americans for Responsible Solutions leadership on his way out the door from the New York City event, poking one senior member of the group’s leadership in the chest to emphasize the point that McAuliffe had changed the game. McAuliffe took on the NRA, but focused on “access” issues like background checks rather than demonizing gun ownership, Bill Clinton said, according to the source.
The next election cycle, 2014, was terrible for Democrats. But the wins by Hickenlooper and Malloy, as well as various state, legislative, and other victories by gun control advocates resonated, they said, and the groups scrambled to make sure gun control wasn’t blamed for 2014 the way it was for 1994. (The examples may not be perfect — Malloy governs a blue state, for instance.) Shortly after the election, Americans for Responsible Solutions staff met with senior officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) to show them how to use microtargeting to find voters open to a gun control message without turning a whole election in a tough state into a referendum on gun control, according to a person who attended the sessions.
A DCCC spokesperson confirmed committee staff have met with representatives for Americans For Responsible Solutions as well as those from Everytown. The DSCC did not respond to a request for comment.
Fear among advocates that Democrats might go weak on gun control after sticking their necks out on it in 2013 was part of the reason for the meetings, the attendee said, but advocates would have reached out even if things had been “rosy” for Democrats. The goal was to share the knowledge about modern gun control campaigning with the party most likely to be interested in it in future elections. Gun control advocates — or “gun safety advocates,” as they prefer to be called — said they still faced a lot of cautious politicians, especially Democrats. But the partisan lines around the issue are also changing with the help of the new gun control advocacy, they said.
“Washington is certainly a town of political calculation, but as the strength of our community has grown, it’s become something that our elected leaders can’t ignore,” Hayley Zachary, executive director of Americans for Responsible Solutions, told BuzzFeed News. She said her talks with politicians sometimes still result in “antiquated responses” to the politics of the guns, but that looking away from Washington has helped her make the point that pushing for expanded background checks and other measures isn’t the political risk it once was.
“We have found Republicans and Democrats who are willing to meet with us,” Zachary said. Groups have touted successes in winning over Republican lawmakers on the state level, and they note the 2013 Senate bill pushed by the White House had bipartisan backing. The politics are shifting, even if the players in the gun control debate aren’t really, she said. What political leaders want is to know that they’ll be supported if they vote for gun control — and that the voters who will back them after the vote can be found and pulled out. They want the same help from gun control supporters opponents have had for decades.
“There is definitely a history of political involvement on this issue from the gun lobby,” Zachary said. “We are up against them more than we are against a political party.”
Millions of dollars are flowing in support of gun control now, and the politicians that take risks have backup they didn’t used to.
“There’s nothing like a scorecard,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown. “We’re out there; everybody knows we’re out there. Thirty-six states in this last legislative session. And, winning. Beating the gun lobby... That speaks 1,000 words.”
National politicians, especially Democrats, are open to talking about gun control even as gun rights advocates continue to control the Washington debate, making national legislation practically impossible. Howard Wolfson, a former top Bloomberg and adviser who helped oversee the billionaire former mayor’s super PAC spending in 2012 and 2014, said even small state-level wins reverberate.
“Politics in D.C. is stuck on a gridlocked partisan loop on nearly every every issue,” he told BuzzFeed News in an email, “but in the states we are having real success — and people are noticing.”
The NRA has certainly noticed. The group has been running ads aimed at tearing down a nonexistent Bloomberg presidential candidacy since August.
The impact on Democrats of a consistent gun control push from the White House and a support system to back it up on the trail is clear. But gun politics are still some of the toughest politics around: While polls routinely show huge majorities of Americans favor stricter federal background checks and tighter regulations on gun purchases, 2016 will be the first test in a long time of how willing they are to vote against politicians who continue to block background check expansion. Gun rights advocates have shown they’re still willing and able to punish lawmakers who cross them, or at least convince them that the politically beneficial path after a mass shooting still steers them well clear of new gun laws that, the gun rights advocates often point out, might have done little to prevent the event in question.
Democrats who have stared down the NRA and found an infrastructure to back them up say the feeling is liberating. “You can vote your conscience here and that’s something you couldn’t say five years ago,” the Malloy insider said.
“The most interesting contrast is between 2008 and 2016,” said Feinblatt, president of Everytown. “Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were not debating gun issues in 2008. I’d argue they were doing just the opposite because they had really accepted the notion that no matter how you felt about it in your heart, it wasn’t worth the political risk of talking about it.”
Seven years later, Feinblatt said, there’s been a “sea change” in Democratic presidential politics.
“Clinton is talking about it and she’s talking about it everywhere, not selectively,” he said. “And Bernie Sanders is actually trying to convince voters that his record on guns is actually better than most people think. … That is a completely different political calculus, and I think that’s happening because of what’s happening in the states.”
Bob Beauprez ran against Hickenlooper in 2014. A previous version of this story misstated his opponent.