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The Democrats' 2016 Contenders Are Betting on Gun Control

Post-Newtown, our "national conversation" on guns has taken two strikingly divergent paths. On the one hand, much of the punditry and Washington political establishment is already lapsing into the resigned assumption that yet again, nothing much will come of our initial outrage over the horror of children being cut down by big guns with big clips, even before Joe Biden announces the administration's gun-control proposal this week. The gun lobby is just too strong, and the popular resistance to major new firearms restrictions just too ingrained, for reform to happen. At the same time, though, several high-profile Democrats who've been mentioned as 2016 presidential contenders are betting on a different read of the situation. As they see it, Newtown has truly changed things, making it not just politically feasible to broach new constraints, but perhaps even politically imperative.

Last week, there was New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, tapping some of his father's moral fervor in a rip-roaring call to make his state a pioneer in gun control: "No one hunts with an assault rifle. End the madness now." He has since reached a deal with state legislators to further restrict assault weapons in the state, limit magazine clips to seven rounds and toughen background checks. Not to be outdone, Cuomo's potential 2016 primary foe, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, who made his name running against gun violence in Baltimore, let slip that he, too, will be announcing a major package of new regulations, including the nation's strictest gun-licensing requirements and a ban on assault weapons. And don't forget Colorado's John Hickenlooper, another Democratic prospect who, in the more hostile political terrain of the West, is now calling for instituting background checks on all gun sales, including private person-to-person ones.

What are we to make of this? Are we back to the Democratic Party circa 1984, with candidates trying to outflank each other to the left to win the affections of the liberal base, with ominous consequences for the eventual general election? Wasn't that what happened to the Democrats in 2000, when Bill Bradley, an ardent gun control proponent, helped drag Al Gore to the left on the issue during the primaries, which helped lead to Gore's loss in Tennessee, Arkansas and West Virginia, any one of which would have put him over the top in the Electoral College? 

To those questions, I would say: no and no. First of all, as I've argued before, the Democrats almost surely overlearned from their defeats in 1994 and 2000 that gun control is an issue to be avoided. There were plenty other issues behind the Republican wave in 1994 beyond the assault-weapons ban President Clinton signed that year; as for 2000, Gore was barely talking about gun control during the general election and in hindsight it's plain that his loss of Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia was part of a broad move away from the Democratic Party in that part of the country that has continued regardless of whether guns are on the agenda or not.

Second, to the extent that gun control was politically risky in past years, the picture simply is different now. The national Democratic coalition -- what it needs to get 271 Electoral College votes -- relies far less than it used to on white, rural voters for whom gun rights are a priority, now that West Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas are out of the Democratic column. Gun ownership generally sorts into partisan lines, with most ardent gun-rights adherents lost to the Democrats for good.

And then there is Newtown. The massacre of 20 elementary school students and a half dozen of their educators has indisputably shifted public opinion -- in a new Washington Post poll, 52 percent say that Newtown made them more supportive of gun restrictions. The NRA's provocative response has ginned up new members for the organization but not helped with the broader public. And that's even before the families of the victims – and of victims from other recent mass shootings, like the one at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado – have started to organize themselves as a political force, as we're now starting to see happening. We're going to hear more things like this, from Dave Hoover, a police officer in Lakewood, Colo., whose nephew A. J. Boik was one of the 12 people killed in Aurora: “It’s different now because children are being butchered in schools. Because kids were killed at a movie. Because families went to church and were gunned down. I don’t understand why we are even arguing about this.”

This not to say that a major gun control package is going to pass Congress in the months ahead. The fact remains that the House is controlled by the Republican Party (despite its winning well over 1 million fewer votes in House elections in November) and that the House Judiciary Committee, which has purview over gun legislation, is chaired by a Virginia Republican, Bob Goodlatte, who ranks the NRA as his sixth largest source of campaign funds and has declared new restrictions a non-starter.

But it is wrong to read the NRA's grip on the legislative machinery as a monolithic hold on this issue overall. The debate has been broken open after far too long, and it's going to be much more fluid and unpredictable going forward than it's been for years. It will be highly variegated from state to state—new restrictions will go on the books in East Coast states run by ambitious Democrats and in states such as Colorado, which have suffered more than their share of mass violence. Meanwhile, some states will go the other direction – Wyoming is considering a bill to block any new federal restrictions on assault rifles or magazine size – and, yes, congressional Democrats from those states will still balk at new regulations, as newly elected North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp has done. But these Democrats will for the first time in years face serious pressure from other Democrats and advocates, not least the deep-pocketed Mike Bloomberg. Democratic presidential candidates running in 2016 will have to have a serious gun control plank, and they will pitch it in the primaries with the forcefulness of people who won't fear that it'll come back to doom them in the general election.

If one needs further proof that the landscape has shifted and become far more complex, consider Rahm Emanuel, who as much as any other leading Democratic warned the party away from the gun control issue after 2000. He proudly recruited pro-gun rights House candidates in 2006, and strongly discouraged Attorney General Eric Holder and others in the Obama administration from pressing gun control in the president's firm term ("shut the fuck up" on the issue, he reportedly declared).

But now he's the mayor of a big city suffering terrible gun violence, and is pushing a very aggressive gun-tracking proposal for all of Cook County, Illinois. At the same time, he clearly still carries the (overlearned?) lessons of 1994 and 2000, and warns that it'll be hard to get even all congressional Democrats behind new national regulations. At a Center for American Progress summit on guns on Monday, Emanuel preached sensitivity to Democrats from districts and states where gun rights still matter. "When the passage comes don't everybody run around and run away come November and then say …'Yeah you did that, but what have you done for me lately?' Because guess what? What happened after '94? … So my view is we have a responsibility to support our friends if they take a tough political vote," he said. “But if a person's gonna take a tough vote, don't walk away from them come the political season. Support them.”

Yes, support them. But before that post-vote support, there's also going to have to be persuasion that this territory is not as treacherous as it was perceived to be in the past. There was precious little persuasion of that sort from Emanuel and others in recent years -- in fact, the opposite. Now, it's coming from the likes of Cuomo, O'Malley, and Hickenlooper -- none of them political dummies or lost-cause radicals. For once, there actually is a national conversation.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis