Joe Biden is accentuating his decadeslong push for gun control in a new series of digital ads aimed at motivating voters to support him in next month’s Iowa caucuses.
In “Classroom,” Jayne Lyons, a teacher from Denison, Iowa, explains how she prepares her fourth-grade students for the possibility of a school shooting — the book she reads to them and the bat she keeps in her closet — as footage from an active shooter drill plays.
“This is not something an educator should have to be talking about,” Lyons says in the longer of two versions of the ad. “I shouldn’t have to do this. When I found out that Joe Biden was going to run for president, I was excited, because I trust Joe Biden with gun issues. He’s brought both sides together. He will fight the NRA, and he knows how to get things done.”
Another spot, titled “Troubled Soul,” features a clip from a Biden speech in which the former vice president laments children being taught how to “duck and cover” at school.
The effort, details of which were shared with BuzzFeed News, is part of the Democratic presidential candidate’s $4 million advertising plan for Iowa. The ads, according to the Biden campaign, will narrowly target potential caucus-goers who might be moved by gun safety messaging, including teachers, parents of school-aged children, first responders, and those who follow gun control groups such as Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety. Spots will be seen on Hulu, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.
Biden allies see advantages in calling attention to his gun control record at a time when the issue has receded from national headlines. As a senator, he supported pivotal laws such as the Brady Bill, which instituted a five-day waiting period for gun purchases, and the assault weapons ban. As vice president, Biden led a task force that recommended 23 executive actions after the 2011 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Though gun violence remains an epidemic — several high-profile mass shootings commanded the attention of presidential candidates last summer — his admirers note that it’s a policy area where Biden has been consistently progressive.
“He’s got a real credible case to be made that he’s the candidate in this race that has the record of fighting the NRA and winning,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun safety advocacy group launched by Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona lawmaker severely injured in a 2011 mass shooting. The organization has not yet endorsed a 2020 candidate.
In the gun plan he released last year, Biden called for, among other things, a new assault weapons ban — the one he pushed in the ‘90s expired in 2004 — and for enhanced background checks. There are few substantive differences among the candidates when it comes to gun control, but with the departure of Beto O’Rourke, who centered the final months of his candidacy on aggressive gun control measures, Biden is one of few candidates positioned to make it a signature issue in Iowa. A poll ordered by the Giffords group last fall found that 59% of uncommitted Democratic primary voters considered guns a top priority.
“I think we are facing a different landscape for gun safety today than we were in 2013,” Stef Feldman, the Biden campaign’s policy director, said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “I think the sentiment around the country has grown with respect for more gun laws.”
The choice to highlight Biden’s role in crafting gun control legislation and pushing for more restrictions also allows the campaign to lean into a “commander-in-grief” persona that has helped him connect with voters in his third run for president. Biden, whose first wife and infant daughter died in a 1972 car crash, often calls back to his struggles after that tragedy.
“He is a man who understands grief and loss in a way that only people who have experienced it can,” said Feldman, a longtime Biden aide dating to the post-Sandy Hook task force who has sat in on meetings between him and survivors and the families of victims. “I think it’s visible that he was able to connect with these families.”
Biden also has developed a relationship with Fred Guttenberg, who has been a prominent gun control advocate since his 14-year-old daughter was killed in the 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Guttenberg starred in a Biden campaign video produced last fall but has not officially endorsed his candidacy.
“I am very appreciative for the personal support and guidance provided to me from VP Biden,” Guttenberg said in a statement provided by Biden’s campaign. “His advice to me was more meaningful than he will ever know and has helped me to heal and move forward. With regards to the presidential race, I am thankful for the VP’s commitment to a strong stance on gun safety. His plan is a very good plan. For the time being, I plan to not make any endorsements as I want to give all the candidates a chance to put forward the strongest possible plan on gun violence before doing so.”
The focus on gun policy could invite contrasts Biden won’t mind seeing at a time when he and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are among the top polling Democrats in Iowa. Sanders in his 2016 presidential bid had to answer for a moderate record that included votes against the Brady Bill and in favor of a law that protected gun manufacturers from liability lawsuits. Sanders' allies have explained his votes as reflective of gun rights sentiments in Vermont, and he since has adopted more progressive positions.
In an open message to Sanders on Twitter last week, Guttenberg wrote he does not believe the senator is the “best candidate for gun safety” and that Sanders’ supporters had responded to Guttenberg’s earlier criticism with “vile attacks.” Ambler, the head of the Giffords group, said Sanders deserves credit for being “someone who’s clearly evolved on this issue.”
Then there’s Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City and the founder and funder of Everytown. Bloomberg’s organization hosted the Democratic candidates, including Biden, for a forum on gun violence last summer in Iowa before jumping into the race himself several months later. He plans to skip the first caucus state and the other early nominating contests but could emerge as a Biden rival on the issue.
“There’s no question that Mr. Bloomberg is going to want to talk about it,” Carol Moseley Braun, a former Illinois senator who has endorsed Biden, told BuzzFeed News, “because he’s been throwing money around on this.”
Jayne Lyons' name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.