People gather for a vigil in response to a shooting at a municipal building in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Image Credit: AP

Washington, D.C.: For the first time in two decades, Democratic presidential candidates are engaged in a politically fraught debate on gun control policy as campaigns and advocacy groups assess the nation’s evolving views of an issue long considered a landmine for the left.

In recent weeks, Senator Cory Booker called for a national gun license programme, Sen. Kamala Harris said she would implement a host of executive actions if Congress failed to act and Rep. Eric Swalwell proposed a mandatory buy-back programme for military-style weapons.

Red-clad activists — most of them mothers — from the gun control organisation of Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, are an ever-present force at Democratic campaign events, and rare is the televised town hall in which a Democratic candidate isn’t pressed on what they would do to combat gun violence.

The mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building on Friday, which killed 11 people, is the kind of tragedy that often elevates the issue’s importance in political debates in the short term. Candidates and officials with the major gun control organisations interviewed all said voter intensity on the issue ebbs and flows depending on news cycles.

On Friday evening, Booker, Harris and Swalwell, as well as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and several other Democratic presidential candidates, expressed grief for the victims and their families and called for Congress to pass new gun control legislation.

“The days of the NRA controlling Congress and writing our gun laws must end,” Sanders wrote on Twitter, referring to the National Rifle Association, the gun-control movement’s chief nemesis. “Congress must listen to the American people and pass gun safety legislation. This sickening gun violence must stop.”

The days of the NRA controlling Congress and writing our gun laws must end. Congress must listen to the American people and pass gun safety legislation.

- Tweet by Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders

The focus and discussion on gun politics is a far cry from how Democrats have approached the issue in recent presidential campaigns. Not since the 2000 presidential primary between Al Gore and Bill Bradley have Democratic presidential candidates held a prolonged discussion about restricting gun rights.

Since then, John Kerry went pheasant hunting for a campaign photo-op in 2003. Barack Obama largely avoided the issue in 2008 and 2012. In 2016, Hillary Clinton attacked Sanders’ past positions opposing gun restrictions, but neither candidate offered new proposals for gun control legislation.

“If you look at past cycles, at best they were dipping their toe in the waters, and now they’re diving in head first,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control group funded by Bloomberg. “It shows the changed political calculus.”

At the same time, the NRA is mired in bitter internal battles over its finances that could imperil the organisation. After spending $60 million to back President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, the NRA spent just $20 million on the 2018 midterm contests. NRA officials have stayed out of the Democratic candidates’ gun control debate, concluding that weighing in on competing proposals would only help Democratic candidates’ fund-raising.

The 2020 Democratic presidential primaries will now determine what voters will accept as good enough on gun control. After years of a failed push to enact federal universal background checks for new gun purchases, Booker and Swalwell are on the leading edge of a push to go well beyond — into licensing and potential confiscation of firearms.

Gone are the days when the only politically acceptable thing to talk about is background checks,” said Kristin Brown, the president of the Brady campaign, the oldest gun control organisation in Washington.

Bloomberg’s group spent $30 million on the 2018 midterm elections and is poised to make itself a central player in the presidential primary. The organisation, which includes the Moms Demand Action grass roots network, plans Friday to send an 18-part questionnaire to the 23 Democratic presidential candidates, Trump and his Republican challenger, Bill Weld. The organisation will use the results to award candidates a seal of approval called the Gun Sense Candidate distinction.

For each of the questions, candidates are asked: “If you have ever held a different position than the answer above, please explain what changed your mind.” Candidates who meet the group’s standard will be invited to the Moms Demand Action annual convention, held this year in August in Washington. The event drew 1,000 supporters last summer when it was held in Atlanta.

Bloomberg himself, who along with his groups spent more than $112 million on the 2018 midterm elections, has yet to engage directly with the 2020 candidates. Since declaring in March that he would not seek the White House himself, he has spoken to just one presidential hopeful — former Vice President Joe Biden — according to Howard Wolfson, Bloomberg’s political aide.

Police keep a perimeter around the scene of a mass shooting that left 11 dead at a municipal building in Virginia Beach, Va., May 31, 2019. Image Credit: NYT

Everytown’s questionnaire includes queries about whether candidates support universal background checks, restricting assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and repealing a 2005 law — which Sanders, then a House member, voted for — that gave gun manufacturers immunity from civil lawsuits related to shootings.

Sanders’ past positions on gun control loom over the debate in 2020. In 1990, he won his first federal race for the House with NRA support. Throughout much of his career, Sanders was seen as a friend to the gun rights movement, backing the 2005 immunity bill and opposing legislation that would have installed a five-day waiting period to purchase a handgun.

After being attacked repeatedly for his past positions during the bruising 2016 contest with Clinton, Sanders in 2016, and again in 2017, co-sponsored legislation to repeal the gun manufacturers’ immunity. He earned Everytown’s Gun Sense Candidate distinction during his 2018 Senate re-election bid, as did each of the Democratic presidential candidates on the ballot last year.

Sanders is hardly unique in the Democratic presidential field for having changed his position on gun control. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand had the NRA’s endorsement during her 2008 House re-election bid, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio had an A-minus NRA rating in 2012 and Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana had a B-minus rating in 2012. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado had a C-plus rating in 2010.

Bennet, Gillibrand and Ryan were all rated F by the NRA during their most recent re-election campaigns. Bullock earned a C from the NRA in 2016 and last year announced his support for a federal ban on assault weapons. Sanders received a D-minus NRA rating in 2012 and an F in 2018.

But while leading gun control advocates largely welcome Bullock, Gillibrand and Ryan as converts, they remain wary of Sanders, a vestige of hurt feelings remaining from his 2016 campaign against Clinton. Both Everytown and Giffords, the anti-gun organisation founded by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, endorsed Clinton — whose opposition research book on Sanders included 13 single-spaced pages under the heading “Bad on guns” — during the 2016 primary.

“It’s important that we see a little bit more from him on the campaign trail,” said Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords’ organisation. “It’s fair for voters to expect him to consistently and forthrightly address the issue, and he really needs to communicate to the millions of gun-safety activists and voters across the country that he’s the person, if he’s elected president, who will take the fight to the NRA and prioritise the fight.”

(For her part, Giffords sent an email praising Sanders’ record on gun control during the 2018 midterm election, as part of a fund-raising pitch to Sanders supporters for her organisation.)

In his campaign announcement video in February, Sanders said “we must end the epidemic of gun violence in this country” and called for expanded background checks and a ban on the sale of military-style weapons.

“Senator Sanders will continue pushing for policy that reflects the urgency of this national crisis, including his 3-decades-old support for an assault weapons ban,” Sanders’ campaign spokeswoman, Arianna Jones, said.

Swalwell, whose campaign has yet to attract broad support or attention, has proposed the most robust gun control proposal in the form of the mandatory buy-back of military-style weapons. The 38-year-old congressman said he drew his proposal from conversations with high school students who fear a school shooting.

“Those students want us to negotiate up rather than down. We don’t want to just play defence on every shooting,” he said.

Swalwell said, if he qualifies for the party’s presidential debates this summer, he won’t attack fellow Democrats who have opposed gun control reforms in the past.

“I’m not trying to shame anybody on this issue because there’s room for evolution,” he said.

Booker’s proposed federal gun licensing programme would enact a minimum standard for gun ownership. Applicants would apply for a gun license like they do for passports and would have to submit fingerprints and sit for an interview with a federal agent. Harris said her executive actions would include mandating background checks for customers of firearms dealers who sell more than five guns per year.