Democrats Used to Disagree About Gun Control. The 2020 Candidates Don't.

The current crop of frontrunners in the 2020 Democratic primary show the homogenization of the left's views on combating gun violence.
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Kamala Harris, Corey Booker, Kristen Gillibrand

Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and the other Democrats seeking the party's 2020 nomination differ little on gun control.

At her recent CNN town hall meeting, Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris was asked by a pastor what the country can do about gun violence. "We have got to have smart gun safety laws in this country," she responded. "You can be in favor of the Second Amendment and also understand that there is no reason in a civil society that we have assault weapons around communities that can kill babies and police officers."

What stood out about that exchange was not that it distinguished Harris from her competitors for the Democratic nomination. Far from it, in fact: In January of 2019, a number of high-profile Democratic candidates in the Senate all co-sponsored an assault weapons ban bill, including Harris, and her presumptive primary opponents Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts).

What was surprising was that Harris' town hall response got much attention at all.

In the run-up to the 2020 election, there's just not all that much variance among the Democratic candidates' positions on guns. In the field, pretty much all the major candidates are committed to gun control, and are not shy about admitting it.

Just look at the most recent National Rifle Association ratings for a dozen of the presidential candidates: Harris, Booker, Joe Biden, and John Delaney rate a seven on the NRA's one to 100 support scale. Gillibrand, Klobuchar, Sanders, Warren, Beto O'Rourke, and Sherrod Brown all rate a 13. Governor John Hickenlooper got a failing grade from the NRA for his work to pass bipartisan gun control in Colorado. Only Montana Governor Steve Bullock pulls decent NRA ratings—a 43—but he doesn't look to be anywhere close to the top tier of candidates right now.

This agreement on gun-control issues marks a remarkable shift for the party. A little over a decade ago, most national Democratic candidates didn't want to bring up gun control on the stump. Democrats were largely convinced that their support for gun control had cost them control of the Congress in the 1990s and the presidency in 2000, and they radically retreated on the issue, while the NRA became far more aggressive and more explicitly partisan in its support and its messaging.

The Democrats in the early 2000s who were willing to speak on gun control espoused a wide range of viewpoints. In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry was largely supportive of gun-control reforms. Yet one of his top competitors in the primaries, Howard Dean, had been endorsed eight times for governor of Vermont by the NRA. Joe Lieberman, another contender that year, supported some gun control reforms, but he had opposed mandatory gun registration and voted to shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits. John Edwards voted to require background checks on all firearm sales at gun shows, but ran his campaign as a staunch Second Amendment advocate.

Since then, gun control has become an issue that sharply divides the major political parties. In 2004, 52 percent of Republicans supported gun rights, versus 25 percent of Democrats, according to polling from the Pew Research Center; in 2017, 79 percent of Republicans did, versus 20 percent of Democrats. Part of this divide stems from the polarization of the parties on a great range of issues. But one can also see it in party members' reactions to specific news events. President Donald Trump has repeatedly fallen in with the NRA and other gun-control opponents, notably advocating for arming school teachers after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in February of 2018. By contrast, in the wake of a wave of mass shootings over the past few years, Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) led a 2016 Democratic sit-in on the House floor to demand new gun-control legislation.

Democrats today not only see the issue as important, but as a potential election winner, and not a drag on a national ticket. The 2016 Democratic presidential prospects were much more unified on gun control than previous fields had been. Hillary Clinton drew an "F" rating from the NRA, as did Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee. Sanders managed to eke out just a "D-." Only Jim Webb garnered an "A," but he was quickly filtered out of contention due to policy inconsistencies with other Democrats, notably including this one.

To a remarkable degree in 2020, the Democratic presidential candidates are singing a very similar tune on gun control, mainly because someone with a more pro-gun record would have a hard time coming close to the nomination today. The issue hasn't been discussed much yet, in part because it's been a little while since the last headline-grabbing shooting, and, as we've seen with many such tragedies, the frequency of coverage decays very quickly over time. (What makes the issue salient again is occasional marches and anniversaries, or further shootings.)

Sadly, the issue may well come to the fore again this year or next should a tragedy arise, and the candidates will likely feel a need to speak up on it. But they'll largely be saying the same thing.

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For the one-year anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, Pacific Standard looked at gun-violence solutions coming from the federal government, and, in lieu of those, the efficacy of a variety of local and non-governmental proposals.

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With the exception of the 113th Congress, the 116th Congress has introduced almost three times as many gun-control laws in their first month as any other recent new Congress. Read the story here.

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