Democrats’ Unprecedented Embrace of Gun Control

The party is betting that support for restrictions is more likely to attract moderate voters than turn them off.

Gabby Giffords
Bloomberg / Getty

On a cold February evening, weeks before the full force of the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, a few dozen Mike Bloomberg supporters milled around the airy living room of a home in the genteel Washington, D.C., suburb of McLean, Virginia. The voters, most of them white, described themselves as moderates or former Republicans. They explained to me that, more than anything, they want stability and civility back in national politics, and they tut-tutted any mention of Bernie Sanders and his plans for radical change. But one issue—the one they’d come to hear about—got them really riled up: gun control.

“He’s laid out an assault-weapons ban for new purchases,” a man named Bill, a managing partner at a small investment firm and a former intelligence officer, told me excitedly, when I asked why he backed Bloomberg for president. (Bill declined to give his last name for privacy reasons.) “And there absolutely should be universal background checks,” he continued. “It’s like, that’s a no-brainer—come on.”

This is the new normal in the Democratic Party: Moderate voters not only support gun-control legislation, but have begun to use the issue as a litmus test. In 2010, roughly 20 percent of all federal candidates who received “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association were Democrats; by the 2018 midterms, that number was down to less than 2 percent, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 2013 and largely funded by Bloomberg. Which means that Democrats in 2020 are embracing gun control in an unprecedented way, betting that their support is more likely to attract voters than turn them away—especially in the suburban districts that are quickly becoming central to the party map.

Nowhere has this shift been clearer than at this year’s Democratic convention, which was expressly designed to appeal to a bipartisan viewership and where gun control has been a central focus. On Tuesday, Representative Veronica Escobar of Texas spoke about the 2019 shooting in El Paso that left 23 people dead. A montage about the nation’s growing gun-violence-prevention movement was narrated by Emma González, who survived the Parkland, Florida, high-school shooting in 2018. Former Representative Gabby Giffords of Arizona, who was shot in the head in 2011 and who spent months relearning how to speak, called for reform in a moving speech last night. Bloomberg is likely to make similar calls when he addresses TV audiences tonight.

Four years ago, Hillary Clinton’s campaign welcomed mothers who had lost children to gun violence to speak at her nominating convention, the first remarks of their kind. But there were no such convention segments or panels on gun control as recently as 2012. “What people are seeing is gun safety not only mobilizes, but it also persuades the all-important independent and suburban voters who will likely decide the 2020 election,” says John Feinblatt, Everytown’s president.

Support for stricter gun-control measures, such as universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons, has grown stronger among Americans in the past decade, as a series of mass shootings has rattled the country. In that time, the Democratic coalition changed significantly too. Moderate Democrats once represented rural swaths of the country, where guns were popular and restricting their use was not. Today, the profile of the average moderate Democrat looks very different: She represents a suburban constituency that overwhelmingly favors gun control, and whose politics are more aligned with those of voters in nearby blue cities than those of voters in rural America. Democrats are “able to be a lot more aggressive on these kinds of issues, since there’s no longer any tension within the Democratic coalition,” says Lanae Erickson, a senior vice president at the center-left think tank Third Way, which has encouraged Democratic candidates to run on gun reforms. Now, “instead of Bart Stupak, you have Abigail Spanberger.”

Gun control was indeed a core campaign message for Spanberger, the Democratic representative who defeated the Republican incumbent Dave Brat two years ago in a suburban district near Richmond, Virginia, that had long been represented by the GOP. It was also central to the campaign platform of Jennifer Wexton, Spanberger’s fellow Virginian and fellow freshman, who flipped her D.C.-adjacent district from red to blue. By 2019, polling showed that gun control was the top issue for voters in their home state; that fall, Democrats managed to gain control of the state legislature and immediately passed a huge slate of gun reforms.

Moderate Democrats have run and won on gun control in red states too. The gun-control activist Lucy McBath, whose son was shot and killed in 2012, now occupies Newt Gingrich’s old seat outside Atlanta. Like Escobar, Representatives Colin Allred and Lizzie Fletcher talked up gun control in their suburban, formerly Republican districts in Texas.

The Senate Democratic caucus is no exception to these changes. This year, almost all of the Democratic candidates in the most competitive races have sought the “Moms Demand Action Gun Sense Candidate distinction,” a rating from Feinblatt’s organization that identifies a candidate as supportive of gun legislation. “People have not noticed how much the Democratic coalition has consolidated around this,” Erickson told me. There may be an assumption “that part of the Democratic coalition is holding us back on this. But that’s no longer true.”

Leaders in the gun-control movement expect to push a Biden-Harris administration to pass legislation requiring comprehensive background checks, and a federal red-flag law that would permit authorities to remove firearms from Americans considered a threat to themselves or others, Feinblatt told me. Maybe, he added, the administration will even revive discussions about an assault-weapons ban.

But like much of the party’s agenda, any legislative progress on gun control almost certainly depends on an overwhelming Democratic victory in November. The base may be more unified than ever on the issue. Its lawmakers might be too. But absent a Democratic wave—and perhaps the end of the Senate filibuster—winning the White House won’t be enough.

Bloomberg’s presidential campaign folded shortly after that February house party in McLean. Watching the convention last night, I thought about another voter I met there: Rebecca Boldrick Hogg, a retired teacher and the mother of David Hogg, a young gun-control activist who, like González, survived the Parkland shooting. David, Boldrick Hogg explained at the time, was all in for Sanders, but she couldn’t abide the senator’s once-moderate record on guns. Her son was willing to accept that Sanders’s political positions had evolved, but she couldn’t bring herself to forgive him for it. Her vote, like so many others’, hinges on where a candidate stands on guns.