How Democrats Lost Their Fear and Regained Their Voice on Guns

"Gun control mostly remains popular among the voters—and in the states—that Democrats need to capture the presidency."

MANCHESTER, NH - SEPTEMBER 19: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks on stage during the New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention at the Verizon Wireless Center on September 19, 2015 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Challenger for the democratic vote Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has been gaining ground on Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire.  (Scott Eisen AFP/Getty)

Near the end of his presidency, Bill Clinton offered me a concise explanation for the Republican victory in the 2000 election to succeed him. Vice President Al Gore, Clinton argued, lost to George W. Bush in the states where the AFL-CIO lacked enough organizational strength to offset the influence of the National Rifle Association.

It was a typically astute political insight from Bill Clinton. It is also an insight that Hillary Clinton signaled this week she considers obsolete.

On Monday, following the Oregon community-college massacre, she proposed the most ambitious ledger of gun-control proposals of any top-tier Democratic presidential candidate since Gore (who wanted to license new gun owners). Clinton’s agenda ranges from executive action that would require more background checks at gun shows to legislation renewing the ban on assault weapons that lapsed in 2004. Following President Obama’s increasing passion about guns, her proposals offered the best evidence yet that Democrats have regained their voice on the politically nerve-racking issue.

“It is very different from 2000 because the problem has gotten worse, our solutions are reasonable, and there is a big frustration in the public,” a senior Clinton adviser said. “We don’t have a lot of fear about this.”

Even after a succession of mass shootings, public opinion about controlling guns remains precarious and conflicted. Although big majorities support most specific proposals, such as universal background checks, polls show most Americans doubt that these steps would do much to reduce gun violence. On the core question of whether it is more important to protect gun rights or to control gun ownership, Americans consistently divide about evenly.

Beyond her personal convictions, there are legitimate political reasons why Hillary Clinton is moving so aggressively. Gun control mostly remains popular among the voters—and in the states—that Democrats need to capture the presidency. Equally important, Democratic presidential nominees don’t rely nearly as much as they did in Bill Clinton’s day on the voters and states that are most resistant to limits on guns.

In his comment to me, the outgoing president was specifically lamenting Gore’s defeat in New Hampshire, Arkansas, and Tennessee—any of which would have given him the White House. In those states, as Clinton correctly observed, organized labor was too weak to neutralize the NRA’s anti-Gore organizing among white men without a college degree, the way the unions did in Rustbelt states (such as Michigan) that Gore carried.

The conclusion that guns were an electoral loser discouraged John Kerry and Barack Obama from stressing the issue during the next three presidential races. But that choice ignored how the Democrats’ path to the White House was changing.

In a Pew Research Center poll in July, the voters most likely to put gun rights ahead of controlling access were white men and women without a college education. Those voters are shrinking within the overall electorate, and, as they tilt more toward Republicans, they are receding even faster within the Democratic coalition. Whites who didn’t finish college provided about half of Bill Clinton’s votes in 1992 but only about two-fifths of Gore’s in 2000 and a fourth of Obama’s in 2012.

Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections by replacing those voters with three growing groups: minorities, college-educated whites (especially women), and millennials. In Pew’s survey, three-fifths of college-educated white women and almost three-fourths of African-Americans and Hispanics considered gun control more important than gun rights. (Millennials and college-educated white men split about evenly.) Like gay rights and immigration, gun control now helps Democrats cement a coalition united mostly by liberal cultural values.

Since Bill Clinton’s era, the Democrats’ base in the Electoral College has been equally transformed. The party has essentially written off rural, gun-friendly heartland states, such as Tennessee, and added cosmopolitan, racially diverse, and urbanized states, particularly along the coasts, that are more receptive to gun control—Virginia, say. The Senate actually captured this shifting balance in 2013, when it failed to approve universal background checks for gun buyers after the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. Although a Republican-led filibuster blocked the measure, both of the senators from 21 states—representing 261 Electoral College votes, just nine short of a majority—favored imposing this popular limit on guns. Only in 17 states, representing just 146 Electoral College votes, did both senators oppose it. (In 12 states, the senators split.)

As that vote showed, gun control will always face a rocky path in Congress because the filibuster magnifies the Senate influence of small, rural states. But the fact that senators from populous states with so many Electoral College votes felt comfortable supporting expanded background checks foreshadowed the tougher line on guns now emerging from presidential contenders like Clinton and rival Martin O’Malley.

This shift presents some electoral risks for Democrats in Rustbelt states, such as Michigan and Ohio, where they must win votes from more gun-friendly, blue-collar whites than they do nationally. But, as Obama’s own rising intensity demonstrates, the electoral fears that had long muted Democrats on guns have now lifted. With the leading Republican candidates all rejecting further limits, the 2016 presidential election will put gun policy more directly in the crosshairs than any campaign since Bush vs. Gore.