Democrats, skittish over pushing gun control since Al Gore’s bid for the White House fell short in 2000, are once again flirting with the issue, preparing to pick perhaps the most anti-gun presidential nominee in a generation.
Hillary Clinton’s provocations will be on the minds of thousands of Second Amendment activists gathering in Louisville beginning Thursday as the National Rifle Association hosts its annual meetings, insisting Mrs. Clinton’s fierce gun control stance will once again hamstring Democrats in a national election.
Likely GOP nominee Donald Trump will speak Friday, delivering his fervent pro-gun stance to the one part of the conservative coalition that has quickly and eagerly embraced him — which makes the contrast with Mrs. Clinton, who’s highlighted her anti-gun stance, all the more striking.
“She’s already viewed as the enemy by the gun rights people anyway, so she’s not losing any votes by saying ‘Look, I think we should enact tougher gun laws in these areas like uniform background checks and some other things,’ ” said Robert J. Spitzer, who chairs the political science department at SUNY Cortland in New York.
He said Mrs. Clinton is the first Democratic candidate since Mr. Gore in 2000 to really try to use the issue as a campaign wedge — attacking her remaining opponent for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernard Sanders, as too conservative after he voted to grant lawsuit immunity to the firearms industry last decade.
“I’m going to keep talking about it, and we’re going to make it clear that this has to be a voting issue,” Mrs. Clinton said at an MSNBC town hall last month. “If you care about this issue, vote against people who give in to the NRA and the gun lobby all the time.”
Those are fighting words for gun rights groups, who for the last 15 years have been on the ascent in politics. Not only have they fought off repeated new gun control efforts in Washington, they’ve won a critical Supreme Court ruling finding an individual constitutional right to firearms ownership, and they’ve flexed their muscle in expanding concealed carry rights at the state level.
So powerful is the aura around gun groups that Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee, then-Sen. John Kerry, went on a high-profile goose hunt during the campaign to try to woo gun rights voters.
Mr. Spitzer, who recently wrote the book “Guns Across America: Reconciling Gun Rules and Rights,” said some of the conventional wisdom about the power of guns is overblown, including the 2000 presidential loss.
“Gore loses the election, and the NRA says ‘that’s because of us. We defeated him,’ ” he said. “And here again, not really, no. But the Democrats after 2000 really felt the gun issue hurt them.”
Guns didn’t play a big role in presidential elections after 2000. But President Obama and congressional Democrats did start talking about the issue more amid a spate of shootings that included a spree in January 2011 in Tucson that killed six people and wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, among others, and culminated with the December 2012 Newtown school shootings that claimed the lives of 20 children and six educators.
Democrats had hoped the shootings, particularly in Newtown, would permanently move public opinion on the gun issue. But legislation to ban certain military-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines and expand gun purchase background checks failed in the U.S. Senate in 2013, though some individual states acted on their own to push through such measures that year.
In the wake of a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last fall, Mr. Obama acknowledged that the gun rights side does have the upper hand politically, and urged gun control advocates to catch up.
“You just have to, for a while, be a single-issue voter [because] that’s what is happening on the other side,” Mr. Obama said.
More recently, the political arm of Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group founded by Ms. Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, asked supporters this week how much consideration they give to candidates’ positions on guns when they vote.
“However you answer this question, you can be sure that Gabby, Mark and the entire team at Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC are going to be doing everything we can this November to elect candidates who will put our interests ahead of the gun lobby’s,” wrote Hayley Zachary of the Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC.
Recent polling on the issue has given both sides material to point to as evidence that they’re winning the public relations battle.
In a Gallup poll taken in January, 62 percent of Americans overall said they were dissatisfied with the country’s gun laws and policies, with 38 percent saying they want to see the laws made stricter, 15 percent saying they want the laws less strict, and 9 percent who said the laws should stay the same.
But a Gallup survey conducted in October showed that Americans who are most passionate about the issue are more likely to favor gun rights: 26 percent said they would only vote for a candidate who shares their gun views — up from 11 percent in May of 2000. And 40 percent of people who favored less strict gun laws said they would only vote for a candidate who agrees with them on guns, compared to 21 percent of those who supported stricter gun laws.
Erich Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America, said Mrs. Clinton is out of touch with reality if she thinks she can change those numbers.
“She is crazy if she thinks that advocating Aussie-style gun confiscation is going to help her win in November,” Mr. Pratt said. “Hillary is in for a rude awakening.”