"Guns are no longer the third rail," said Steve Schale, a political operative who ran Obama's Florida campaign in 2008. "Ten to 12 years ago, Democrats had to — for political necessity — be really careful about how they talked about it. Now, if you don't talk about it, you're not part of the political conversation."
Democrats are increasingly emboldened to embrace gun control as the anniversary of America's deadliest mass shooting at a high school approaches on Thursday. The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 students and staff members and roused a group of young activists who sought to make gun violence a generational issue for younger voters.
Since then, Democrats say they're buoyed by their success in last year's midterms. The party won back the House of Representatives, fueled by victories in several competitive, suburban swing districts where candidates highlighted gun control.
Lucy McBath, who became a gun control activist after her 17-year-old son was shot to death at a gas station in 2012, won a suburban Atlanta congressional district that had long been held by the GOP. Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger, ousted the Republican congressman and gun rights supporter who represented the district where the Aurora theater shooting happened outside Denver in 2012. Even in Republican-dominated Texas, backing gun control didn't stop Democrats from flipping a suburban Houston seat to their column.
AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of the American electorate, found 8 percent of midterm voters across the country called gun policy the top issue facing the nation. They broke for Democrats over Republicans by more than 4 to 1.
"The primary thing that's shifted in the politics of this issue is voter intensity was on their side. It's now on ours," said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun control group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords after she was injured in a 2011 mass shooting.
Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly, said Tuesday that he would run as a Democrat for Arizona's Senate seat next year, suggesting that gun control won't soon fade from the campaign trail. Democratic bullishness on guns is reflected by the unanimity in its sprawling presidential field on the issue. Presidential aspirants who once took a more moderate stance and opposed elements of gun control, such as Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have now embraced the cause. And the most prominent potential moderates in the Democratic field, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Vice President Joe Biden, are longtime gun control advocates.
But there's no guarantee the Democrats' leftward turn on guns will help them recreate their 2018 victory during the 2020 presidential election, which will take place on different terrain than the diverse, educated suburbs where Democrats performed best in in November. Democrats will have to win more rural, whiter states to defeat Republican Donald Trump in the Electoral College in 2020. Florida will again play a crucial role, and Democrats lost major races there last year despite being the location of the Parkland shooting.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton ran on a platform of unabashed gun control — partly a product of attacking Sanders for his more conservative gun control positions in the Democratic presidential primary. Trump accused her of trying to do away with the Second Amendment and warned she might appoint Supreme Court justices with that goal. Republicans believe that's part of the reason Trump eked out his 2016 win.
"The threat of a Hillary Clinton presidency brought gun owners out of the woodwork in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania," said Dave Workman, a longtime gun rights activist at the Second Amendment Foundation in Washington state. Gun owners "may not like everything about Trump, but they sure don't want him replaced by Kamala Harris or Cory Booker," Workman added, referring to the California and New Jersey senators running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
So far, Democrats like Booker and Harris routinely allude to problems of gun violence but have not released detailed plans to control it. The candidates may soon find themselves in a bidding war for the Democratic base on the issue, much as they have been tugged left on taxes and universal health care.
"They're going to go too far," Brad Todd, a Republican strategist, said. Still, Democrats think the tide has turned since 2016. Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said Trump was able to win then because many female suburban swing voters didn't believe he would really govern as a conservative president on hot-button issues like guns. Now, she said, they have no illusions.
"The victory for Democrats is going to come from the enthusiasm of women," Lake said. "Parkland is a breakthrough moment that we need to take advantage of." Despite Democratic losses in Florida last year, there was a silver lining to party faithful on guns. In the weeks after Parkland, the GOP-controlled Florida legislature passed a bill allowing authorities to seize firearms from people deemed a threat, as well as implementing a three-day waiting period on gun purchases. It was the first gun control bill passed in Florida in decades, and it was signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott, who highlighted it in his successful Republican Senate campaign.
Schale, who advised Parkland students and families who helped push the legislation, acknowledged that the gun issue could accentuate the divides that helped Trump win in 2016. But he believes the Democratic side is bigger.
"There's a risk that Republicans could be out of the mainstream" on guns, Schale said.
Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.