A man holds a Bushmaster AR-15 Model A2 semi-automatic assault rifle.
Photograph by George Frey—Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Dan Friedman
June 20, 2016

In the wake of the murder of 49 people and the wounding of 53 in Orlando last weekend, Senate Democrats have won the chance to vote Monday on two narrow gun control proposals they sponsored: expanding background checks and barring terror suspects from buying guns.

But President Obama and Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, are among many top Democrats also calling for reinstating an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.

Their willingness to aggressively push that position highlights a sharp shift for a party that 10 years ago ducked debates over guns. More and more, Democrats agree on gun control.

Today, about 80% of Democrats say that laws covering sale of guns should be stricter, according to CBS News polling. That’s up from 66% in March 2013. During that period, the number of Republicans who agree has stayed close to one-third.

Democratic lawmakers argue that national attitudes on guns are changing. And indeed, CBS polling also found support for an assault weapons ban jumped to 57% after Orlando, up from 44% in December. Opposition fell from 50% to 38%.

Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, who claimed allegiance to ISIS, used a recently purchased semi-automatic in the attack. Many Americans agree with Obama, who said Saturday that preventing such incidents requires “making it harder for people who want to kill Americans to get their hands on assault weapons that are capable of killing dozens of innocents as quickly as possible.”

But in the longer term, views on gun laws appear to be driven as much by partisan division as specific events. And the political divide has widened.

The same CBS poll found that 78% of Democrats support an assault weapons ban, compared to 45% of Republicans. Only 18% of Democrats oppose a ban, versus half of Republicans.

This polarization is supported by evidence that Republican and Democrats simply interpret fatal shootings differently. A poll taken by Gallup shortly after the Orlando mass shooting found that 60% of Democrats viewed the killings as an example of domestic gun violence—which can be fought with gun control—while 79% of Republicans viewed them as Islamic terrorism—which requires an anti-terrorism response.

After attributing their presidential loss in 2000 in part to the assault weapons ban, Democrats shied away from gun control talk in order to avoid alienating rural voters, particularly blue collar white males. Today, Democrats are less worried about those voters, who tend to oppose gun laws. That’s because those voters now tend to vote Republican anyway.

Obama lost big with such rural white voters, but won more votes from woman, minorities and others groups clustered in or near cities. Those groups, such as black voters and woman with college degrees, support gun control. Republicans need older, disproportionally white, male voters to win.

With a polarized electorate, both parties believe they benefit more by turning out core supporters than from courting a shrinking group of swing voters. Guns, like abortion, have become an issue both parties want to talk about.

“After years in which Republicans were more confident than Democrats in debating gun-control questions, the issue now energizes each side’s coalition,” political analyst Ron Brownstein wrote in the National Journal in January.

 

To win the primaries and delegates needed for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump had to drop his past support for an assault weapons ban. He recently claimed the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, which has gone from backing members of both parties to functioning as a partisan organization.

Trump checked his aggressive rhetoric last week when he tweeted that he would urge the NRA to ease their opposition to legislation barring terror suspects from buying guns. But Trump seemed to back off that stance Sunday.

On the Democratic side, the appeal of stronger gun laws was evident in Clinton’s attacks on rival Bernie Sanders over his past votes against background check laws and for limits on lawsuits against gun makers. Clinton faulted the Vermont senator even though, reflecting his party, he too now backs an assault weapons ban and tighter background checks.

Hardened views on guns are also evident down the ballot. In the key swing state of Ohio, Ted Strickland was elected governor as a pro-gun Democrats in 2006, but largely reversed his views on guns before challenging incumbent Sen. Rob Portman this year. Strickland supports background checks and has opened the door to backing an assault weapons ban.

Strickland attributed his shift to the Newtown shooting, but his new stance also fits the changing electorate in Ohio. Strickland won in the state in 2006 with strong support in the rural Appalachian eastern portion of Ohio. But voters there have turned increasingly Republican. To prevail this year, he will need to ride Clinton’s coattails and replicate coalitions Obama and liberal Senator Sherrod Brown used to win the state. That requires larger margins in and around cities, where gun control is popular, to make up for lost voters in rural areas, where it is not.

When the Senate votes Monday on background checks, Trump and Portman will line up on one side, Clinton and Strickland on the other. Whether or not those views reflect convictions, they track the views of the voters the candidates are courting.

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