DES MOINES, Iowa — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) was in his last day of law school in 1994 when he got some horrific news: His 11-year-old nephew Jeremy was dead.
The boy had been killed by a stray bullet fired by a classmate who’d brought a gun to school to get revenge on the kids who’d bullied him.
“An identical twin, shot and killed by a 10-year-old lined up in front of the school that day,” Bullock told VICE News with a hitch in his voice Friday night before the Wing Ding Dinner, an annual Democratic fundraiser in Clear Lake. “At the time, it was on all the TV shows, all the front pages because it was the youngest school yard shooting in the country. Now a 10-year-old killing an 11-year-old wouldn't even make national news.”
When he ran for statewide office Bullock opposed most new gun control reforms, campaigning against laws tightening background checks as recently as 2016. But he now says that it’s time for major gun safety reforms: universal background checks, red flag laws, limits on the size of guns’ ammunition magazines, even a ban on the sale of semi-automatic weapons.
Those are remarkable positions for a red-state governor from a rural state with one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the country — ones that illustrate how much both the Democratic Party and America as a whole have shifted on gun control in recent years and continue to move in the wake of the dual massacres last week in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.
Bullock joined fifteen other Democratic presidential candidates in Des Moines for a gun violence forum by Moms Demand Action and Everytown, two groups backed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
That the hastily arranged event, planned after last weekend’s massacres, drew nearly every serious candidate and hundreds of activists shows the potency of the issue, and the striking unanimity Democrats have on the topic. In 2008 and 2012, Democrats barely talked about guns. In 2016, it was a minor issue. Now it’s at the center of the national discussion — and Democrats are talking about the issue with newfound urgency.
“Times have changed,” Bloomberg told the crowd. “There has never been more unity on gun safety across so many Democratic presidential candidates, and across the entire Democratic Party, as there is today.”
Democrats have moved with the times.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a former member of the National Rifle Association who once received NRA support (he’s since given away their donations), led a caravan from Dayton to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) hometown of Louisville on Thursday and held a rally to demand McConnell bring back the Senate to vote on gun safety measures. He got some of the loudest cheers of the night at the Wing Ding dinner for railing against the GOP for blocking popular gun reform measures.
“Psychologically, we all went to bed with El Paso. And then we woke up to Dayton.”
Ryan told VICE News at the Wing Ding dinner Friday night that “the ground is shifting” due to the regular occurrence of mass shootings, and the latest tragedies pushed people further — including gun owners in his blue-collar district.
“Psychologically, we all went to bed with El Paso. And then we woke up to Dayton,” he told VICE News. “We have these 200 [bullet] magazine drums, hundred round magazine drums. That doesn't even make any sense. Yeah, like, honestly, what the fuck are we talking about? This is insane. And I think that's how most people feel.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has a mixed record in the past on gun control. He voted against the bill which created a national background check system with a waiting period, and for laws that made it hard to sue gun manufacturers, though he’s long supported an assault weapons ban.
After facing fire on the issue in 2016 and defending his past stances, he’s now come out strongly for gun control. And he heaped praise on the gun safety movement for shifting the politics of the issue.
“You have for the first time put the NRA on the defensive, and that is no small thing,” he told the crowd Saturday before saying voters in rural areas like his home state of Vermont had shifted on gun control in the wake of a spate of massacres over the last few years.
“Like everyone else in this country, they are disgusted and horrified by what they are seeing,” he said.
Wide support of background checks
It’s easy to forget how far things have moved in just a few years. Efforts to tighten gun laws after the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre fell short — fully 15 Senate Democrats joined most of their GOP colleagues to defeat a proposed an assault weapons ban the next year, and four crossed party lines to vote against tightening background checks.
A Gallup poll conducted weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre found that Americans opposed an assault weapons ban by 51% to 44%. Now those numbers have reversed: Americans now support a ban by 57% to 41%, according to a poll released last month by NPR and PBS. Universal background check legislation has long been popular, but it’s grown from 65% support when the Senate failed to pass the bill in 2013 to nearly 90% support now.
Earlier this year, the Democrat-controlled House passed the first major gun control legislation in a generation. That bill, which currently languishes in the Senate, would close loopholes to create a universal background check system for gun sales in the U.S. Fully 232 of the 234 Democrats in the House backed the bill, which has received renewed interest in the wake of last week’s tragedies.
Now, Republicans are the ones divided and scrambling with how to deal with the issue. And after a few weeks of tension and infighting within primary, Democrats are unified around an issue with growing support from Americans.
“It’s an issue that’s unifying the country,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told VICE News.
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom on Friday August 9, 2019. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)