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."

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.

In Ohio this month, Quinnipiac pegged the number in favor of an assault weapons ban at 51 percent and a ban on high-capacity ammo at 52 percent.

"The explanation to rational people is, there are restrictions on the Second Amendment. You just can't let the NRA frame the argument," explains South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian, who agrees gun control advocacy won't be a liability for his party in 2016.

Midterms, of course, are a different matter. Republican senators must protect their right flanks from primary challenges. Democrats in red states fear the most highly motivated group of voters will be the angry minority. And the NRA can employ targeted tactics to gin up passions unmatched by safety advocates.

"They can bring a lot of research to bear, they can turn out voters in off years. But in presidential elections, the NRA is going to be irrelevant and in fact, could favor Democrats. They could become a bogeyman for Democrats and I think that's going to help [Democrats]," Bennett predicts.

Even Republican strategists don't foresee the gun issue becoming a pivotal in 2016.

"I don't think gun control energizes anything much besides the base in both parties and so I don't see it as a real vote driver," says GOP operative Ed Rogers. "Looking over the horizon, we'll be in a lot of the same combat zones that we were before, central Pennsylvania ... Ohio, where people are protective of their right to have a gun. And you better not be too extreme on the issue. But again, I think it's marginal at best. I don't think it affects people's lifestyle enough to drive many votes."

After all, the latest governor to hop on the gun-control train is a Republican.

Last week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie proposed additional background checks, a ban on particular rifles, and tougher penalties for gun trafficking.

That positioning won't do him any political harm in New Jersey; his risk lies only with his party's unforgiving base -- which even Democrats aptly distinguish from Republicans as a whole.

In swingy Colorado, Hickenlooper aides said the governor did extensive outreach with GOP community interests before he put forth his gun legislation package.

That's part of why they don't expect significant political repercussions -- beyond the typical bombast hurled by political opponents.

Hickenlooper's chief strategist Alan Salazar said they reached a consensus, "maybe not in the Capitol -- where Republican legislators voted against it" -- but, perhaps more importantly, "with mainstream Republicans."