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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

How Democrats Learned to Stop Playing Scared on Guns

Over the course of Obama's presidency, the party has gone from ducking the issue to throwing the first punches against the NRA.

by Mike Spies and Olivia Li
Jun 27 2016, 7:45pm

Georgia Congressman John Lewis speaks outside the US Capitol after the House Democrats marathon sit-in on Thursday, June 23, 2016. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This post originally appeared on The Trace.

When then-Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was caught on tape musing about "bitter" Americans who "cling to guns or religion" in 2008, his opponent, Hillary Clinton, seized the episode as an opportunity to make a comeback. Appealing to rural Democrats, she talked up her own enjoyment of shooting with her dad and rescinded her previous calls for a national gun registry. After she failed to turn guns into a wedge issue, though, top Democrats had little interest in discussing gun policy, beyond loosening a few niche gun restrictions.

Just as Obama was sewing up the Democratic nomination, the Supreme Court was preparing to deliver gun reformers a stinging blow with its historic Heller v. District of Columbia in which the justices upended centuries of precedent and declared that the US Constitution does indeed guarantee the individual right to bear arms. The decision demoralized gun control advocates already sidelined by their putative political allies.

Eight years later, cheering a House occupation broadcast on Facebook Live, sustained by pizza delivered by new pro-gun reform groups, and fired up by a voter calculus that has Democrats believing they can win on the gun issue, the party has taken on the issue with a gusto that would have been unimaginable at the start of Obama's presidency. The future of the bills Democrats are pushing in Washington is unclear, but this much seems certain: Whatever happens on Capitol Hill, a huge test has been set for November.

Here are the key moments that got the party where it is now on guns.

February 2009: Rahm Emanuel Aggressively Tells Obama Cabinet Members to Leave the Gun Issue Alone

During the second month of Obama's presidency, Emanuel, then serving as the White House chief of staff, sent an urgent message to US Attorney General Eric Holder: "Shut the fuck up" on guns. Holder had recently told the press that the Obama administration supported the reinstatement of an assault weapons ban, which had expired in 2004. Holder's statement angered the Blue Dog Democrats that Emanuel needed to pass the president's ambitious domestic agenda, including an overhaul of the healthcare system.

July 2009: For the First Time, the National Rifle Association Opts to Rate a Supreme Court Nominee's Record on Guns

When Obama got his first chance to nominate someone to the Supreme Court, the NRA broke with precedent to assert its influence over a branch of government putatively independent from partisan politics: the judiciary. Sonia Sotomayor was expected to swiftly replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter when Obama put her name forward for the seat. As a federal judge, Sotomayor had never explicitly engaged with gun rights: The closest she came was a decision upholding New York state's ban on nunchucks, in which she said the Second Amendment does not prevent states from regulating deadly weapons.

But the confirmation hearings took place at the start of the Obama presidency, and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell needed to shore up his caucus to thwart the White House's agenda. So he asked the NRA to score the vote on Sotomayor. The organization, unsurprisingly, announced it opposed her nomination, citing the nunchuck ruling.

From then on, the NRA remained involved in federal judicial appointments. To Republican senators, the message was clear: Support a Democratic judicial appointee, and there will be consequences. In 2012, when then-Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, who voted to confirm Sotomayor, was up for reelection, the NRA ran an ad campaign reminding voters that he sent a gun-grabber to the high court. Lugar, who had served in the Senate for over 35 years, lost his primary race to a Tea Party candidate named Richard Mourdock.

September 2009: Democrats Pass Laws Allowing Guns on Amtrak and in National Parks

In his first year in office, when Democrats held a majority in both chambers of Congress, President Obama signed into law two bills expanding gun rights. The first allowed licensed gun owners to carry concealed, loaded weapons into national parks and wildlife refuges. The second, part of an omnibus spending bill, allowed travelers on Amtrak trains to store unloaded, locked guns in their checked baggage. Both measures passed Congress with wide Democratic support.

November 2010: The NRA Gives Money to Democrats for the Last Time

The 2010 midterm election cycle was the last in which the NRA broadly supported Democrats who maintained strong pro-gun voting records. All told, the group spent nearly half a million dollars backing dozens of Democrats, 65 of them in the House of Representatives alone.

But 2010 also saw the rise of the Tea Party, and when insurgent conservative candidates swept Republicans back into control of the House, the NRA found itself at risk of falling behind the rightwing tide. By 2014, the NRA's support for Democratic candidates had all but disappeared.

December 2012: A Gunman Kills 26 People—Most of Them First Graders —at Sandy Hook Elementary School

The mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, capped a series of high-profile shootings that brought gun violence back into the national consciousness in a big way. In June 2011, Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had been shot in the head outside a Safeway grocery store in her home state of Arizona. (Since her recovery, Giffords has become a staunch advocate for gun control, and founded the gun violence prevention group Americans for Responsible Solutions.) One year later, a shooter opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12.

The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School followed just six months later. Reactions to the slaying of 20 schoolchildren and six educators pushed gun rights advocates and gun reform advocates further apart. On one end, the head of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, decried gun-free zones and called for armed security in all American schools. On the other, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America emerged to pressure Democrats into making gun control a real issue for progressives.

April 2014: A Bipartisan Proposal to Expand Background Checks Fails in the Senate

Five months after the Sandy Hook shooting, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania introduced an amendment that would have expanded background checks to cover firearms purchases at gun shows and on the internet. The measure required 60 votes to proceed, which meant sponsors needed support from all 55 members of the Democratic caucus, and also at least five Republicans.

Manchin and Toomey made a number of concessions to entice red state Democrats and Republicans to support the proposal, including one that would allow licensed firearms dealers to sell handguns across state lines. Their proposal fell short, with only 54 votes. Four Democrats—Arkansas's Mark Pryor, North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, Alaska's Mark Begich, and Montana's Max Baucus—opposed it on behalf of their conservative constituents (Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who supported the bill, also voted against it for procedural reasons.) Meanwhile, just three Republican senators, in addition to Toomey, voted in favor: Mark Kirk of Illinois, John McCain of Arizona, and Susan Collins of Maine.

November 2013: Democrats Take on the NRA in Virginia and Still Win State Elections

Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe ignored conventional wisdom in his gun-friendly state, celebrating his F rating from the NRA and positioning himself as a full-throated supporter of gun control measures. His stance was a vivid contrast with that of his opponent, the state's arch-conservative attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli. And at the end of the day, McAuliffe won. Democrat Mark Herring was also victorious, succeeding Cuccinelli in the attorney general's office after highlighting his support for gun-safety legislation during the election.

In this purple state, the success of candidates who support stricter gun laws underscores how changing demographics have altered voter coalitions: "Over the years, the commonwealth has become more urban and suburban," Herring's campaign manager later wrote in the Washington Post. "We found broad support in the Washington suburbs, Richmond and Norfolk for comprehensive background checks and ending the gun-show loophole."

November 2014: Loyalty to the Gun Lobby Fails to Protect a Two-Term Democrat

Despite Pryor's fealty to the NRA's positions on major gun bills—including the Manchin-Toomey amendment—the gun lobbying group put its money and muscle behind his challenger, Arkansas Congressman Tom Cotton. Deciding it no longer needed to protect even friendly Democrats, the organization spent almost $3 million cheerleading for Cotton. Pryor recently told The Trace that the NRA "isn't fair with Democrats, even when they have the same voting record as Republicans." In what was supposed to be a tight race, Pryor ended up losing his Senate seat by 17 points.

June 2015: A Mass Shooting at a Historically Black Church Pushes Guns into the Center of the 2016 Primary Race

Less than a week after a racist gunman named Dylann Roof fatally shot nine black churchgoers at the congregants at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, newly-announced presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivered a speech on gun violence and race relations, embracing gun control as a central feature of her presidential campaign.

"Those nine righteous men and women who invited a stranger into their midst to study the Bible with them, someone who did not look like them, someone who they had never seen before, their example and their memory show us the way," she told her audience. "Let us be resolved to make sure they did not die in vain—not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good."

After the speech, Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine described Clinton's new rationale for squaring off against the NRA. "I think she has no illusion that even if she didn't say a word about guns, the NRA would be out there blasting her to say she had a conspiratorial plan to work with the UN to take everybody's guns away," he told the Washington Post. "So why not go head-on on an issue that will improve safety?"

June 2015: The Supreme Court Disarms a Different Culture War

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, ruling that states could no longer restrict the right to marry to heterosexual couples. The decision marked a sea change in social mores and legal thinking on gay rights—and effectively removed a litmus test issue from national politics.

But multiple polls show that even as conservatives have inched toward the middle on gay marriage, they've swung to the right on gun. Democrats see gun violence prevention—and the inflexibility of the NRA-GOP alliance—as providing a stark, motivating choice. "Democrats are going to have to reconvene the Obama coalition for 2016, and this has very high interest," Emily Tisch Sussman, a past head of Young Democrats for America and now a campaign director for the Center for American Progress, told The Trace's Alex Yablon.

October 2015: Clinton Launches Her First Attack on Bernie Sanders's Gun Record

During the first 20 minutes of the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 primary race, the candidates mentioned guns more times than the party's candidates did in all 14 debates of the 2008 election. With Clinton, Sanders, and the soon-to-be-forgotten Martin O'Malley largely in agreement on gun control, the contenders fought over who was most reviled by the NRA.

But there was some daylight between Clinton and Sanders when it came to specific gun control policies—and Clinton seized on it as a way to burnish her progressive credentials and raise questions about those of her unlikely rival.

In 2005, Sanders had voted for a once-arcane piece of legislation known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shields gun stores and manufacturers from many types of civil liability. With families of the Sandy Hook victims in the midst of a suit challenging that same law, the Vermont senator's position found himself on the wrong side of a key progressive issue. Clinton continued to barrage Sanders on the vote, until he finally walked back his support for the law, confirming that Democrats had become as dogmatic about gun control reform as Republicans have been on gun rights.

December 2015: The Terror Gap Becomes a Talking Point

After terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State opened fire in Paris in November, 2015, lawmakers in the US acknowledged that under current gun laws, radical Islamic terrorists know how to secure weapons here. Less than three weeks later, a couple pledging commitments to jihadism gunned down 14 public health employees at an office Christmas party in San Bernardino. And the "terror gap"—a loophole that allows individuals on terror watch lists and no-fly lists to buy guns—took center stage in the gun debate.

In the wake of the San Bernardino shooting, Democrats pointed to the GOP's reluctance to closing the terror gap as a sign of the party's intransigence on gun policy. Republican found themselves in a bind: Protective of their historical advantage on national security, GOP politicians couldn't really oppose closing the terror gap; but given their allegiance to the NRA, they also couldn't advance a workable fix.

January 2016: Obama Cries, and Announces a New Slate of Executive Actions on Gun Issues

For all the drama of the rollout speech, the contents of the White House's plan to take action on gun control were relatively bland, including a push for more funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; more background check examiners—a provision that requires budget authorization that the GOP has inevitably withheld; and a directive meant to expand background checks by requiring more private sellers to secure dealer licenses.

But by declaring gun reform to be at the top of his agenda for his final year in office—and explicitly highlighting the limits of his own powers to enact the necessary changes—Obama kept the issue on the media's radar, giving validation to gun control activists who had long struggled to get on the White House's radar, and putting the onus on Republicans and the NRA to do something about America's epidemic of gun violence.

April 2016: The 'New York Times' Starts Covering Urban Gun Violence Like a War

In 2015, few took real notice when Chicago notched a record year for gun violence. But heads finally turned when the death tolls and shooting rates in the first three months of 2016 shot past shot past the carnage from the same period the previous year. Over Memorial Day weekend, the New York Times deployed a big multimedia team to document every shooting in the city, commissioning polls and data analysis on the gulf between Chicago's gun violence rates and New York's lower per capita counts, and publishing a series on the hundreds of multi-victim shootings that occur annually in America but never make headlines. Implicit in the wave of coverage was a signal that the Times was going to use its reputation and sizable platform to make sure the issue stayed on the country's mind.

June 2016: Forty-Nine People Are Shot in an Orlando Nightclub

The deadliest mass shooting in US history confirmed that the country still hadn't seen the worst of its gun violence epidemic. The carnage was so extensive that a candlelight vigil honoring the victims had to be postponed to give Orlando's overwhelmed city services a chance to prepare for the turnout.

By then the shooter's claims of allegiance to ISIS reignited the terror gap fight. When the House of Representatives held its the customary moment of silence the day after the massacre, Democrats refused to take part, saying that new laws, not prayers, were needed in the wake of the tragedy.

June 2016: Democrats Go All-In with a Filibuster and a Dramatic Sit-In

Congressional inertia on gun control finally cracked—and then crumbled—when Democrats seized an opportunity to push for legislation that would close the terror gap, and address other gun control measures on the background check system and the lack of funding for public health research on gun violence.

Connecticut's junior senator, Democrat Chris Murphy, started the charge, conducting a nearly 15-hour filibuster three days after the Orlando shooting to try to force Republicans to schedule a vote on gun bills. Exactly one week later, Democrats in the House of Representatives made their move, sitting on the chamber floor for 26 hours to demand that Republican Speaker Paul Ryan schedule similar gun control proposals for a vote.

The Senate measures to close the terror gap failed, and prospects for a bipartisan compromise bill dimmed when a maneuver by McConnell, now the Republican Majority Leader, let vulnerable GOP senators slip out of town. On the House side, Ryan adjourned the chamber without scheduling a vote, but Democrats have hinted that they may resume their pressure tactics when they reconvene July 5.

And with that, a party that less than eight years ago was determined to duck the gun issue is now throwing the punches, and trying to rewrite the political wisdom on guns. "We want to say we broke the NRA," a Democratic Senate leadership aide told The Trace's Washington correspondent, Dan Friedman, on the day before the sit-in. They also want to win races, of course. But whether attempting the first yields the second remains to be seen.

A version of this article was originally published by the Trace, a nonprofit news organization covering guns in America. Sign up for the newsletter, or follow the Trace on Facebook or Twitter.