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Victims, Families, Lawmakers Bring Firepower to Gun Control Fight

Democratic convention features a series of speakers affected by gun violence

Former Rep. Gabby Giffords, and her husband Mark Kelly, speak on gun violence. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Former Rep. Gabby Giffords, and her husband Mark Kelly, speak on gun violence. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans focused their convention on painting a picture of a lawless American society, promising to restore “order” after the shooting deaths of several police officers in recent weeks that stunned the nation.  

But Democrats spent a second night Wednesday doubling down on victims of gun violence  — putting on center stage relatives of those killed in mass shootings while balancing the delicate act of expressing support for law enforcement.  

Christine Leinonen embodied a little of both.  

Leinonen’s son Christopher was among 49 people killed in the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando in June, the country’s worst mass shooting in history.  

After speaking about the pain of losing her son, she told the story of the day he was born. She told the crowd she was a Michigan state trooper at the time, which drew cheers — but not the loudest of the evening — from delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.  

She recalled that hospital officials put her gun in a safe when she went into labor. “I know common sense gun policies save lives,” Leinonen said, her voice thick with emotion. “I’m glad common sense gun policy was in place the day Christopher was born, but where was the common sense the day he died?”  


The Latest From the Democratic Convention: Day 3


Erica Smegielski recounted the day that her mother, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School, died in a mass shooting there in 2012.  

“I should not be here tonight, I don’t want to be here tonight,” Smegielski said. “I should be home like so many Americans watching on TV with my mother as we nominate the first women to be nominated President of the United States.”  

Democrats have advocated for stricter gun laws that would ban the sale of military-style weapons and keep people on terrorist watch lists from being allowed to buy guns.  


Gun Violence Takes Center Stage at the Democratic Convention


But the focus on gun laws is a departure from previous presidential elections, when Democrats essentially ran away from the issue to avoid alienating pro-gun voters in swing states, said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.  

Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut acknowledged as much when he told the crowd Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was probably advised to avoid broaching the topic.  

“I’m sure people told her it wasn’t worth the political risk,” Murphy said.  


Democrats Law and Order Tightrope


Murphy led a nearly 15-hour filibuster to force a vote on gun bills in the Senate, though nothing was passed. He and other Democrats are now taking their message to the campaign trail.  

Highlighting gun control also helps the Democratic Party use the  issue to galvanize the base — a lesson it learned during the 2012 election when minorities, including African Americans and Hispanics, helped send President Barack Obama to a second term.  

“The Democratic Party feels like this is going to play well with all voters they need to turn out,” Winkler said.  

While Democrats have typically focused on victims of gun violence, they are also talking about the safety of law enforcement personnel after many police unions expressed support for Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has promised “law and order” under his tenure.  


DCCC Uses Gun Violence Sit-In to Promote Party at Convention


Democrats, too, tapped law enforcement officials to speak at their convention but took a more leveled approach.  

Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey advocated for improved relationships between law enforcement and communities.  

“I’ve seen the crime scenes. I’ve seen grieving families, including those for police officers,” Ramsey said. “Now more than ever we need a strong, steady leader to stop the bloodshed.”  

Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot outside a Tucson supermarket during a constituent meeting in 2011, also took the stage. Her husband highlighted that he was the son of two New Jersey police officers.   

Giffords, who was left disabled, and her husband reiterated a notion echoed by several speakers throughout the evening — that Clinton would stand up to the gun lobby if elected and advocate for gun legislation.  

Given the intense focus on gun control by both sides — on everything from victims to law enforcement to legislation — the outcome of the presidential election could likely determine which aspects get more emphasis, Winkler said.  

“This election is very much a test case for the future of gun control in the Democratic party,” Winkler said.

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