As Obama visits Oregon, four reasons gun rights debate is shifting

President Obama travels to Roseburg, Ore., on Friday to comfort families of last week's massacre victims. Democrats are getting bolder on gun violence. 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama walks across the tarmac as he prepares to board Air Force One Friday. Obama is traveling to Roseburg, Ore., to meet with families of the victims of the Oct. 1, shooting at Umpqua Community College.

The politics of gun violence has turned a corner.

Following last week’s mass shooting at a college campus in Roseburg, Ore., Democrats in Congress are back on the offensive against gun violence. In the presidential race, Hillary Clinton has made gun safety proposals a centerpiece of her campaign, while Republican candidates bend over backward – at times in eyebrow-raising fashion – to defend gun owners’ rights.

And on Friday, President Obama heads to Roseburg to meet with the families of victims. It will be a low-key visit, with no public announcements planned. Roseburg is in a conservative part of Oregon, and the president may hear more jeers than cheers from local residents. Thousands plan to protest the visit.

But Obama is pressing on, fulfilling his pledge to keep speaking out on gun violence.

The bottom line on guns and politics is this: Unlike in the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, when Mr. Obama shied away from a focus on guns, Democrats have made it a top issue in the 2016 cycle.

“It’s still early, but I think among Democrats, there’s a stronger sense that this issue is worthy of pushing and might have some electoral traction, including in the general electorate,” says Robert Spitzer, an expert on the politics of guns at the State University of New York in Cortland.

The growing frequency of public mass shootings is driving the discussion. But the tragic headlines aren’t the only reason some politicians are more willing to stick their necks out, in defiance of the powerful gun lobby. The political calculation has changed in three other ways:

 Most Democrats on Capitol Hill seem to have nothing to lose. Time was when the Democrats had a significant cohort in Congress representing pro-gun states and districts, and needed to avoid antagonizing the National Rifle Association. But many of those Democrats are now gone. Some retired and were replaced by Republicans; others lost reelection.

The result is more uniformity of views in each party conference – and more polarization. That makes the prospects for passing legislation anytime soon virtually nil. Still, Senate Democrats pressed ahead Thursday with a new gun control proposal, aimed at improving background checks and closing gun-purchase loopholes. It’s a response to Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn’s summer proposal to focus on the mental health of would-be gun buyers.

Supporters of comprehensive legislation, combining elements of both ideas, are skeptical that the climate is right for a bipartisan approach. But at least the conversation is alive. And Democrats, now in the minority across Capitol Hill, have less reason to hold back. Polls show strong bipartisan support for a stronger background check system.

Mrs. Clinton sees a rare political opening to the left of Bernie Sanders – and a breakout moment for Democrats. Senator Sanders, Clinton’s top opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, represents Vermont, a rural hunting state. As such, he has not been vocal on firearms – a departure from the liberal passion that otherwise defines his platform.

Sanders’ voting record, in fact, is mixed on guns – a “no” on the 1993 Brady Bill (requiring background checks) but then a “yes” in 2013 on legislation to expand background checks and ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. In his 2012 reelection, Sanders rated a D- from the National Rifle Association.

This is not to say that many Sanders supporters are likely to leave him for Clinton over guns. More important for Clinton, in fact, is what the issue does to her image among the larger electorate. Her sweeping new gun control proposal, introduced Monday, represents a major break with her party’s efforts to woo gun owners – and with her own posture as a candidate in 2008, when she did not emphasize gun control.

On Monday, an emotional Clinton called for closing the so-called “gun show loophole” on private weapon sales, and repeal of a law that bars victims of gun violence from suing gun manufacturers. She also proposed closing another loophole that allows for gun purchases to proceed even if the federal background check isn’t completed after three days.

To reach beyond their base, though, Democrats have work to do, says Daniel Webster, Director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“Candidates are going to have to find a way to engage the mainstream gun owner, who generally favors background checks and other measures to keep guns away from dangerous people, and do it in a way that’s respectful,” says Mr. Webster.

Meanwhile, some Republican presidential candidates haven’t done themselves any favors in their reactions to Roseburg. Jeb Bush appeared insensitive when he said “stuff happens.” Ben Carson came close to blaming the victims when he said, “I would not just stand there and let him shoot me.”

• Obama is a lame duck, and gun violence is a legacy issue for him. Obama has called his inability to pass new gun control laws the greatest frustration of his presidency. Now well past his last election as president, Obama is liberated, in a way, in both his use of the bully pulpit and his aggressive use of executive authority.

The ability of presidents to sway public opinion – and thus Congress – is often overrated, but for Obama, there may be nothing to lose. Few issues get the cool Obama as emotional as gun violence, especially when its victims are young.

Obama is also exploring new executive actions on guns, even after saying he had exhausted that avenue following the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. One possibility is to redefine private gun dealers as being “engaged in the business” of selling firearms, thus requiring their buyers to undergo background checks.

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