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Ignoring gun policy used to be the safest bet for candidates. Now it’s a liability.

Rep. Eric Swalwell's entry into the 2020 Democratic primary race shows just how much political winds have shifted on guns.

Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA) at the First Christian Church on February 17, 2019 in Albia, Iowa. Swalwell announced his 2020 bid for president during a late-night TV interview this week, highlighting his platform on gun control. (PHOTO Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA) at the First Christian Church on February 17, 2019 in Albia, Iowa. Swalwell announced his 2020 bid for president during a late-night TV interview this week, highlighting his platform on gun control. (PHOTO Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“I will be the first candidate to say that reducing gun violence has to be a top three issue.”

So said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), a four-term congressman from the San Francisco Bay Area, in an interview with Esquire before he formally entered the already crowded 2020 primary field.

That formal announcement came Monday evening via a tweet, not by Swalwell himself but from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where Swalwell, 38, had just taped his first stump speech, masquerading as an interview.

“I’ve talked to kids who sit in their classrooms afraid that they’ll be the next victim of gun violence, and they see Washington doing nothing about it after the moments of silence, and they see lawmakers who love their guns more than they love our kids,” he said. “And none of that is going to change until we get a leader who is willing to go big on the issues we take on, be bold in the solutions we offer, and do good in the way that we govern.” Moments later, he formally announced his intention to be that leader.

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By any measure, Swalwell’s candidacy is a long shot. But his entry into the race signals a bigger shift in presidential politics, particularly among Democrats: gun control, once a third rail of political campaigning, has quickly become party orthodoxy.

The shift has been both sudden and gradual. As recently as President Obama’s 2012 reelection bid, guns were little more than an afterthought on the campaign trail. During the general election, the two candidates were asked about gun control exactly once during three nationally televised debates.

In 2016, after years of record-breaking mass shooting events, the best that Hillary Clinton could muster on the campaign trail was a vow to fight for common sense gun reform measures like universal background checks and the closure of the so-called gun show loophole. Despite Republican protestations, such measures hardly constituted “bold” action on guns — polling suggests those kinds of reforms are supported by 90 percent of American voters.

Fast forward to 2019, where the “common sense gun reforms” that set Hillary Clinton apart are now party gospel. In Congress, Democrats retook the House of Representatives in part on the strength of candidates who ran on a platform of gun control. Rep. Lucy McBath, (D-GA) who lost her son to gun violence and began working with gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, unseated former Republican Congresswoman Karen Handel last November, but only after first winning a Democratic primary in which her opponent argued that theirs was “not the district in this country where you want to try to win on the gun issue alone.” McBath became the first Democrat to represent the district since 1978.

“Just a few years ago, campaigning on a gun reform platform would have been considered politically risky, but that tide has clearly turned,” said Katie Peters, the communications director for Giffords, the gun safety organization founded by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. As evidence, Peters said, you need only look at the field of Democrats vying for their party’s nomination.

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“Every candidate running so far has been united in promising to strengthen gun laws and make our communities safer,” she said. “It isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the politically savvy thing to do.”

Running afoul of pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) used to be a political death sentence for all but the most secure Democratic seats. Some of the most progressive lawmakers in Congress were loath to support even the most mundane gun control measures, for fear of seeing their arbitrary rating with the gun lobby fall.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) found himself in the awkward position of having to defend critics on his left during the 2016 presidential primary, when Hillary Clinton pointed out that Sanders voted against the Brady bill a half-dozen times while in Congress, and refused to support other gun control measures.

Now, anything higher than an F rating from the NRA is a scarlet letter when affixed to a Democrat vying for a nomination.

“It’s absolutely been a sea change,” said Shannon Watts, the founder and director of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She pointed to the most recent statewide elections in Virginia, where no less a gun group than the National Rifle Association is headquartered.

“You can look back at the Virginia election in 2017, we really sort of swept the Virginia delegation. And when you looked at the polling there, the number two issue was gun safety,” Watts said. “That pattern has continued.”

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Indeed, during the 2018 midterm elections, polls consistently showed that gun policy was among the top issues for voters nationwide when deciding who to vote for, coming out ahead of taxes, immigration, and social safety net programs. Gun policy didn’t even register when the Pew Research Center asked the same question ahead of the previous midterms in 2014.

It all points to a sudden and dramatic shift in the way candidates talk about guns. Not only is it now safe to challenge the gun lobby, but failing to do so is a considerable liability.

“I think what we showed in the 2018 midterm elections is that not only is this issue not polarizing, but it gets people out to the polls,” Watts said.

Swalwell’s nascent campaign is the most extreme test case. If common sense gun reform measures are the new baseline for Democrats, Swalwell’s platform might well be the ceiling.

Not only has he been a vocal proponent of reintroducing the federal assault weapons ban — a position shared by several other 2020 candidates — he is pushing for a nationwide gun buyback program in which the government will purchase weapons back from owners, in the hopes of getting many of the most dangerous weapons out of circulation.

Even President Obama, who embraced the idea of an assault weapon ban and other gun control measures as a top priority in the wake of Sandy Hook, was supportive of a grandfather clause for current owners of assault weapons.

Swalwell is also notably one of three Democrats currently running for president while in their 30s. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Honolulu, Hawaii, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, both 37, are also pursuing the nomination, and all three represent another crucial change in the gun control debate.

“I was in high school when the Columbine shooting happened,” Buttigieg told a crowd at a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire, last month. “I literally belong to the school shooting generation and understand what is in the eyes of young people who are calling an older generation to account for our failure to keep them safe.”

Millennials, often disparaged for their low turnout rates in elections, are slowly starting to expand their share of the electorate. In 2018, turnout among 18 to 29-year-old voters surged by nearly 200%, the highest such increase by any single age cohort. That same generation also overwhelmingly supports Democrats when it comes to addressing gun violence, according to a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll, and younger voters are more likely to list gun policy as a very important issue when voting compared to the overall population.

In addition, the newest block of voters — so-called Generation Z — are starting to reach voting age as well, in an era defined by Parkland activists and active shooter drills. Swalwell invited Parkland survivor and activist Cameron Kasky to the State of the Union address in February, and on Tuesday evening he will hold a town hall campaign event in Sunrise, Florida, an event Kasky helped organize. 

And it’s not just students whose experiences are shaping their views on gun control. As the name of Watts’ organization suggests, mothers are also confronting the effects that school shootings are having on their children.

“Many women and moms come to us because they have sent their children to school, as young as preschool, and essentially had to essentially rehearse their potential death in the bathroom of their classrooms,” Watts said.

Whether or not Swalwell can navigate the crowded, choppy waters of the Democratic primary en route to the nomination remains to be seen, but his very entry into the race might itself signal a kind of victory: guns could well be a top three issue already.