Personal experience with guns helps shape how 2020 Democrats talk about them

Presidential candidates are united on background checks, but split on buybacks, licensing

Minnesota senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar cites her state’s hunting traditions when speaking about her plans to combat gun violence. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Minnesota senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar cites her state’s hunting traditions when speaking about her plans to combat gun violence. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 28, 2019 at 6:00am

For some Democratic presidential candidates, hunting is a family affair. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan says he hunts ducks “at least once a year, with our oldest son.” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who hunts deer, talks about “creating lifelong memories with our kids.”

Family, tradition and personal hunting experience are integral to the way these candidates speak about guns — and how they pitch gun control measures to voters from areas of the country with a strong history of gun ownership.

[Montana’s Steve Bullock warns Democrats they’re at risk of losing to Trump]

Ryan and Bullock are both trying to gain traction in the presidential race, but they’re not alone in their approach to guns. While most of the Democratic hopefuls are calling for similar policies to address gun violence, from universal background checks and so-called red flag laws to an assault weapons ban and closing the “boyfriend loophole,” some are using personal experience to frame the issue differently.

Speaking in Little Rock, Arkansas, recently, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar pitched what she would do to fight gun violence and invoked a litmus test that has become a mainstay of her stump speech.

“I come from a proud hunting state,” she said. “I always look at these proposals, and I say, ‘Do they hurt my Uncle Dick in his deer stand?’”

That line, and Klobuchar’s deer-stalking Uncle Dick, reflect her Midwestern roots, which she is hoping will distinguish her from the rest of the now-21-candidate field, especially for voters in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

Her plan checks many of the boxes for the 2020 Democratic policy consensus on gun violence prevention, including universal background checks, closing the “Charleston” and boyfriend loopholes, and funding research on gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Klobuchar doesn’t go beyond the party consensus on guns. Nor do most candidates from states with strong hunting traditions, like Bullock and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. None of them have endorsed mandatory buyback programs or federal gun licensing, pitched by more liberal candidates from states with much stronger gun control laws.

Nonetheless, Klobuchar argues her proposals are gaining support among Minnesotans, who have three times elected her to the Senate.

“One of the things we’ve seen change politically,” she said, “is that more and more hunters are standing up and they’re saying, ‘You know what, no. This isn’t going to hurt my ability to hunt or own firearms.’”

Polling supports Klobuchar’s assertion. A Fox News poll from earlier this month found the National Rifle Association with a net negative rating for the first time — 42 percent of voters viewed the group favorably, 47 percent had an unfavorable opinion. What’s more, a Quinnipiac University poll in May found that 94 percent of U.S. voters favored universal background checks.

[Trump opts against call for gun-control bill after Dayton and El Paso shootings]

A bill to expand background checks to more weapons sales — federal law currently mainly covers those by licensed dealers, leaving out many person-to-person sales and transfers — passed in the House in February. The Senate has not taken action.

Generational appeal

Though South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, like Klobuchar, is from the Midwest, he relies more heavily on his military service record when speaking about an assault weapons ban and similar policies. 

“Eighty, 90 percent of Republicans want … an end to assault weapons, things like what I carried overseas in uniform that have no business in American neighborhoods in peacetime, let alone anywhere near a school,” he said during the second Democratic debate in July.

Buttigieg, one of three military veterans currently in the Democratic field, has gone further on gun violence protection than some candidates by endorsing national gun licensing. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts are advocating similar requirements.

Age is another quality that has allowed Buttigieg to speak differently about guns. Should he win, the 37-year-old would be the youngest person to become president, and he has tied his youth to his pitch on gun violence.

“I was a junior when the Columbine shooting happened,” Buttigieg said during the second debate. “I was part of the first generation that saw routine school shootings. We have now produced the second school shooting generation in this country. We dare not allow there to be a third.”

‘Bold on the commonsense things’

Booker, who has led on gun licensing as well as calling for a mandatory assault weapon buyback, says his everyday experience makes gun violence such a pressing issue for him. The former Newark mayor still live in the city, where he says he frequently hears gunshots.

“I think I’m the only one — I hope I’m the only one on this panel here — that had seven people shot in their neighborhood just last week,” Booker said in June during the first Democratic debate. “Someone I knew, Shahad Smith, was killed with an assault rifle at the top of my block last year.”

That experience, he said, pushes him to be bolder on gun violence.

“I have little tolerance for Democrats who seem to be bold on a lot of other plans and issues but aren’t bold on the commonsense things that will make my community safe and communities like mine all across this country,” Booker said in an interview with Vox.

‘An existential threat’

There’s no lack of boldness to the plans offered by Democrats seeking the presidency, particularly after recent deadly mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso resident who represented the city in the House for three terms, has taken on the issue of gun violence with new fervor, saying in a campaign email that guns are an “existential threat.”

O’Rourke, a red-state Democrat who entered the race with a moderate stance on gun control, has departed substantially from the less confrontational rhetoric employed by Klobuchar and Bullock. His posture on guns has grown considerably more aggressive since the tragedy in his hometown.

“In a country that has 320 million people but 390 million firearms … we have too many guns, too many people who own them and use them and threaten us,” O’Rourke said earlier this month in a speech relaunching his campaign following the shooting in his hometown, which killed 22 people.

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O’Rourke is now pushing not just for an assault weapons ban, but for federal gun licensing, a mandatory assault weapons buyback and a voluntary handgun buyback. He also wants to declare gun violence a public health emergency.

“Not only do we need to end the sale of assault weapons and weapons of war that were designed for the battlefield and have no place in our communities, but we must as a country buy those weapons, take them off the streets altogether,” O’Rourke said.

A promise of action

Whatever the candidate’s personal connections to the issue may be, Republican inaction on measures with broad public support such as background checks and red flag laws has also become a key part of the Democrats’ campaign messaging.

“I met more Republicans that were telling me to get something done, please, that this has gone too far,” Ryan told PBS following the Dayton shooting. “We’re reaching the point in this country where people are fed up. And the NRA-paid-off politicians like Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump and others in Republican leadership are going to get steamrolled.”

Though New York Rep. Peter T. King last week became the first Republican in Congress to throw his support behind a renewed federal assault weapons ban, both the congressional GOP and the White House have been at best noncommittal.

[First House Republican backs renewed assault weapons ban]

Despite saying repeatedly in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton shootings that he wanted to see background checks implemented, Trump later walked back his support, reportedly assuring NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre in a phone call that universal background checks would not be considered.

In the face of Republican opposition, the prospects for legislative action on guns when Congress returns next month are uncertain at best. Nevertheless, Democratic candidates say they are encouraged by the grassroots energy they see on the issue.

“The conversation about gun violence in America is shifting,” Warren wrote on Medium earlier this month. “If we turn our heartbreak and our anger into action, I know we can take the power from the NRA and the lawmakers in their pockets and return it to the people.”