When is the right time to have a meaningful, substantive debate on gun control?
The correct answer, of course, is “yesterday.” For Republican lawmakers, the answer is “never.” For the field of Democrats running for president, the answer might finally be “now.”
It’s taken a few years — a few decades, perhaps — longer than one would hope, but Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail are beginning to find their voice on the issue of gun control.
As recently as a few years ago — even after mass shootings at Virginia Tech, at Sandy Hook, at Fort Hood, in Aurora, Colorado, in Charleston, South Carolina, gave birth to groups like Everytown, Moms Demand Action, and Giffords — Democratic lawmakers in Washington were still treading lightly on the issue of guns.
Sure, every mass shooting triggered a wave of indignation at our collective inability to curb gun violence, and renewed calls for legislative action. But when those bills inevitably stalled at the feet of Republican obstructionists, Democrats would allow their outrage to recede, at least until the next mass shooting. Like the tides, their interest ebbed and flowed.
In this case, the gravitational force at work was the National Rifle Association. Republicans have cowered in fear of the group’s undue influence for decades, but more than a few Democrats did as well. And leaders within the party were keenly aware that their most vulnerable members in Congress often hailed from districts where existing “gun culture” all but forbade politicians who wanted to win an election from running afoul of the NRA.
That is simply no longer the case. If gun control was once a third rail of Democratic politics, it’s now a litmus test.
There are two broad and interconnected reasons why. The first is the aforementioned rise of new advocacy organizations focused on the issue of gun control. Many of them have been around for years, but their political influence is only now coming into maturation thanks in no small part to the survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Their refusal to be silenced and forgotten has kept the issue of gun control in the public consciousness even as the current administration sets the rest of the world on fire.
Gun control, even as recently as the 2016 election, was never a Top 5 issue for voters in the same way health care, the economy, and social safety net programs were. But since Parkland, there is evidence to suggest the issue is firmly lodging itself in the minds of voters. During the 2018 midterms, gun policy was ranked as a very important issue by 69 percent of voters in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. That ranked it ahead of taxes, Medicare, Social Security, immigration, and all but two other issues.
So animating has the issue of gun control become, among Democrats in particular, that an entire presidential campaign was launched atop a platform of gun control. And while Rep. Eric Swalwell’s (D-CA) entry into the field was short-lived, the very notion of a candidate running on the issue of gun control was unthinkable even four years ago.
Simultaneously, as the influence of gun control groups has grown, the NRA’s has waned. Once the standard bearer for single-issue advocacy organizations — their grading system for politicians once had the ability to sink or sustain an entire campaign — the NRA is now limping into the 2020 election season after a series of highly publicized and deeply embarrassing failures.
The first came at the hands of the Parkland survivors once again. Their effort to encourage boycotts of corporations that partnered with the NRA was a resounding success, and resulted in the group losing dozens of corporate allies and the financial incentives that came with them. Infighting within the senior leadership of the organization leaked into the public arena, leading to resignations, lawsuits, and more bad press. The organization’s foray into original video, NRA TV, was unceremoniously shuttered, and their finances, once their greatest source of strength, are reportedly in shambles. Some Republicans may still regard the NRA as a formidable political force, but the American public, by and large, do not — perhaps the most valuable political asset for mainstream Democrats running for office in 2019 is how triggering their candidacy is to the NRA.
In the clearest sign yet of the group’s devaluation, on Thursday both the White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — the same Mitch McConnell who has staked his entire reputation on being a roadblock to any meaningful legislation proposed by Democrats — signaled a willingness to consider bills strengthening and expanding background checks on guns. As legislative responses to mass shooting events go, it leaves a lot to be desired. But the NRA has staunchly opposed any effort to buttress existing background check measures, and if they can’t even keep Moscow Mitch in line, one has to wonder what actual power the NRA has left.
The shifting political headwinds make it all the more curious then, that guns are only now commanding the attention of the Democratic field. Several candidates have released plans or proposals about how to address gun violence in the United States, but through four nights and nearly ten hours of debates so far, the issue has barely been raised.