Long gone are the days of John F. Kerry flaunting his affinity for the Second Amendment by taking the press along on a goose hunt in the 2004 presidential campaign.
This season’s crop of Democratic hopefuls is tacking far to the left on gun control after mass shootings in Texas and Ohio over the weekend. They have called for national licensing and firearm buybacks and suggested sending federal agents into people’s homes to confiscate weapons.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, the front-runner in the Democratic race, said he would create a gun buyback program and remove military-style rifles from people’s possession once the weapons are banned.
“They should be illegal, period,” Mr. Biden said on CNN. “Look, the Second Amendment doesn’t say you can’t restrict the kinds of weapons people can own. You can’t buy a bazooka. You can’t have a flame thrower.”
Pressed on whether he would confiscate existing guns, Mr. Biden’s vacillating underscored the dilemma facing the candidates.
“Right now, there’s no legal way that I’m aware of that you could deny them the right to have purchased — legally purchased them,” he said. “But we can, in fact, make a major effort to take them off the street and out of the possession of people.”
Public opinion has shifted strongly in favor of stricter gun laws in response to the mounting death toll from frequent mass shootings. The latest proposals, however, are the most aggressive from presidential candidates in decades.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris said she was open to a mandatory gun buyback program. She also suggested that she was fine with police knocking on doors and taking away weapons. When she was California attorney general, she said, authorities took guns from felons and people deemed dangerous to themselves or others.
“We have to deal with this on all levels, but we have to do this with a sense of urgency,” she told reporters in Nevada.
Several other candidates want to license gun owners.
Until recently, talk of a national database of gun owners and buybacks or confiscations of weapons were more likely alarmist fundraising pitches from the National Rifle Association than real campaign promises from mainstream candidates.
Those proposals risk alienating gun-owning Democrats across the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Activists may rally behind a gun buyback program, but not average Iowans who make up the bulk of the crowd at the caucuses, said Daniel Callahan, chairman of the Democratic Party in Buchanan County, Iowa.
“Honestly, I think that is something that is going to make it hard to get elected,” he said. “Anything mandatory will cause a lot of heartburn around here.”
Democrats were approaching gun laws with extreme caution since 2000, when many in the party blamed Al Gore’s gun control zeal for turning away white Southern men and costing him the presidential election.
After that, Mr. Kerry organized the duck hunting stunt, and Barack Obama in 2008 proudly proclaimed, “I believe in the Second Amendment.”
The power of the NRA and the gun lobby have prevented most gun control laws from passing Congress. The last major action was a ban on assault rifles in 1994 that expired in 2004.
Repeated pushes to renew the ban failed, as did repeated attempts to expand background checks, including after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were slain.
Most of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls had called for those steps and now are ready to go further.
Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said the politics of gun control have not changed.
“It just intensified,” he said. “A large majority of Americans have been calling for more action to control gun violence for years. The Democratic candidates are just catching up. Republicans fail to respond to public support to stop gun violence at their own peril.”
An online white supremacist screed linked to Patrick Wood Crusius, who is suspected in the killings of 22 people at a Texas Walmart, appeared to contribute to the Democrats’ resolve. The motivation of Connor Betts, who killed nine people including his sister in Ohio before he was fatally shot by police, remained a mystery Tuesday.
As the Democrats proposed stricter gun laws, they frequently blamed President Trump for fanning the flames of hatred behind the bloodshed.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas said he was willing to impose an Australian-style mandatory gun buyback and national gun licensing programs.
After a 1996 mass shooting in Tasmania, Australia banned a variety of firearms, including semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, and forced gun owners to sell their weapons to the government. The program has been credited with reducing gun violence in Australia.
Early in the Democratic race, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California presented himself as a leading gun control voice and was the first candidate to propose a mandatory buyback program. He dropped out of the race last month, though his failure to gain traction cannot be attributed entirely to his gun control stance.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and entrepreneur Andrew Yang have offered voluntary buyback schemes.
Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey rolled out aggressive plans to ban military-style “assault rifles” and to crack down on firearms manufacturers and gun dealers. He stopped short of buybacks.
He plans to deliver a major speech on white supremacy and gun violence Wednesday at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The church was the site of a 2015 attack by a 21-year-old white supremacist who shot dead nine people at a Bible study meeting.
The weekend’s shootings also spurred bipartisan moves toward tougher gun laws, though nothing close to what Democrats are talking about on the campaign trail.
Senate Republicans are working on bipartisan legislation for universal background checks and for “red flag” laws that allow authorities to confiscate firearms from people deemed dangerous.