Why These 2016 Democratic Hopefuls Aren't Shying Away From Gun Control

The NRA looks stronger than ever after the failure of new limits. What do three governors know that their party's senators in D.C. don't?
Governors Andrew Cuomo, John Hickenlooper, and Martin O'Malley (from left) have charged forward on gun-control measures even as national momentum has stalled. (Reuters)

The lesson in the Beltway after the somewhat-anticlimactic defeat of Senate gun-control measures last week sounded like a broken record: You don't mess with the NRA. Second Amendment rights remain a third rail, even in the wake of unspeakable tragedies.

Yet, even before that series of votes, a trio of Democratic governors -- and 2016 presidential aspirants -- appeared poised to challenge that narrative.

While Congress couldn't even muster 60 votes for an incremental expansion of background checks, such legislation was only the tip of the iceberg for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Earlier this year, they both signed laws pairing rigorous, sweeping background checks with expansive assault-weapons bans and limits on ammunition capacity. Cuomo got a registry for existing assault weapons. O'Malley scored requirements of fingerprints, training, and a license in order to buy a handgun.

Out west, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper -- a moderate, business-friendly beer mogul in a firearm-friendly state that has endured two notorious shooting massacres -- ushered through his own magazine restriction and background-check enhancements.

"This didn't come from the White House," Hickenlooper said on the day he signed the bill, brushing aside critics who claimed he was caving to national pressure rather than acting on his own.

The threat of political payback by the gun lobby hangs ominously over the heads of swing-state senators. But it's apparent these governors are making a different calculation.

Of course, it will be advantageous for them to be able to stake out liberal turf on gun restrictions in a Democratic primary. In fact, it likely will serve as a litmus test. Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer mused recently that his position on guns would preclude him from a presidential bid. "In Iowa and Florida, those Democratic voters would ask me about things like gun control and I'd say things like, 'You control yours, I'll control mine.' That's not going to sell in a Democratic primary," he said.

But Democrats also sense there's little risk anymore of carrying a strong gun-control message into a general election for president -- despite polls showing the country remains deeply divided on imposing greater restrictions. A USA Today survey last week found support for a new federal gun-control law down to 49 percent -- a slide of 12 percentage points in just two months.

Yet while Democratic operatives concede gun proponents are a potent force in individual midterm campaigns, they contend their influence is significantly diluted in a national contest infused with so much money and so many cross-cutting factors.

Even after high-profile summer shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and Oak Creek, Wisconsin, guns never became a top concern for voters last November, according to exit polls.

The media devoured stories about gun owners stockpiling weapons and ammunition out of fear of President Obama's policies, but one former Obama campaign aide said it barely registered politically.

"I can't imagine a president who alienated the NRA more than Obama did, and it virtually had no impact," the operative says. "We really didn't spend a ton of time on guns. It was a drop in the ocean."

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David Catanese is a national political reporter based in Washington. His website on the 2016 presidential race is TheRun2016.com.

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