"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."
Matt Bennett, a former aide to President Bill Clinton and co-founder of the bipartisan group Third Way, notes that in most battleground states, the scales are tipped in favor of gun control.
"If you look at the 11 battleground states of presidential politics, Wisconsin, Iowa ... Ohio, I do believe on balance this will be good for proponents of gun safety," Bennett says. "Virtually all gun-safety policy is popular at least broadly, if not very deeply. It's going to be very hard to hurt a Democratic presidential nominee with this stuff even if they've signed bills that ban things."
For instance, a Quinnipiac University survey of Virginia voters in January found 58 percent support a federal assault-weapons ban; a similar margin favored outlawing high-capacity magazine clips. Even on the general question of whether Virginia's gun-sale laws should be stricter, it was a 7-point push in favor, 49 percent to 42 percent.