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Rep. John Lewis speaks to the press after wrapping up a historic sit-in on the House floor to protest a lack of gun votes. The event was the most recent indicator that Democrats are now ready and willing to take on the NRA. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Politics

16 Moments That Led Democrats to Stop Playing Scared on Guns

Over the course of a presidency, the party has gone from ducking the issue to picking an epic fight with the NRA.

When then-Senator and Democratic frontrunner Barack Obama was caught on tape musing about “bitter” Americans who “cling to guns or religion” in 2008, his opponent, Hillary Clinton, seized on the chance to turn the episode into a springboard for a comeback. Appealing to rural Democrats, she talked up her own enjoyment of shooting with her dad and rescinded her previous calls for a national gun registry. After that effort to use guns as a voting wedge fell short, top Democrats had little interest in discussing gun policy, beyond loosening a few niche gun restrictions.

Just as Obama was sewing up the Democratic nomination, the Supreme Court was preparing to deliver gun reformers a stinging blow with its historic Heller v. District of Columbia decision, in which the justices upended centuries of precedent and declared that the Constitution does indeed guarantee the individual right to bear arms. The decision demoralized advocates already sidelined by their putative political allies.

Eight years later, cheering a House occupation broadcast by a new technology, sustained by pizza delivered by new pro-gun reform groups, and fired up by a voter calculus that has them believing they can win on the gun issue, Democrats have taken on the issue with a gusto that would have been impossible to imagine at the start of Obama’s presidency. Prospects for the bills that the party has been fiercely pushing in Washington are unclear, but this much seems certain: Whatever happens on Capitol Hill, a huge test has been set for November.

Here’s how the current showdown was put in motion, in 16 specific steps.  

01
Rahm Emanuel aggressively tells Obama cabinet members to leave the gun issue alone

January 2009: During the second month of Barack Obama’s presidency, Emanuel, then serving as the White House chief of staff, sent an urgent message to Attorney General Eric Holder: “Shut the fuck up” on guns. Holder had recently told the press that the Obama administration supported the reinstatement of an assault weapons ban, which had been passed under President Bill Clinton and expired in 2004. Holder’s statement angered Blue Dog Democrats, who Emanuel needed to back the President’s ambitious domestic agenda, including an overhaul of the healthcare system.

In his 2012 book Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, journalist Daniel Klaidman recounted Emanuel’s fiery anecdote:

On February 25, Jim Messina, Emanuel’s deputy, walked into his boss’s office to inform him of [Attorney General Eric] Holder’s latest “gaffe.” At a press conference earlier that day, Holder had told reporters that the administration would push to reinstate the assault-weapons ban, which had expired in 2004. The comment roused the powerful gun lobby and its water carriers on Capitol Hill. “Senators to Attorney General: Stay Away from Our Guns” read a press release issued by Senator Max Baucus of Montana — a Democrat, no less.

Emanuel was furious. He slammed his desk and cursed the attorney general. Holder was only repeating a position Obama had expressed during the campaign, but that was before the White House needed the backing of pro-gun Democrats from red states for their domestic agenda. The chief of staff sent word back to the [Department of] Justice that Holder needed to “shut the fuck up” on guns.

02
For the first time, the National Rifle Association opts to rate a Supreme Court nominee’s gun record

July 2009: As Obama gets his first chance to nominate someone to the Supreme Court, the NRA breaks with precedent to assert its influence over a branch of government putatively independent from partisan politics: the judiciary. Sonia Sotomayor is expected to swiftly replace the retiring justice David Souter when Obama puts her name forward for the seat. As a federal judge, Sotomayor had never explicitly engaged with gun rights: The closest she came was a decision upholding New York state’s ban on nunchucks, in which she said the Second Amendment does not prevent states from regulating deadly weapons.

 
But the confirmation hearings are taking place at the start of the Obama presidency, and Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the upper chamber, needs to shore up his caucus to thwart the White House’s agenda. He asks the NRA to score the vote on Sotomayor, and it announces its opposition, citing her ruling on nunchucks and her contention that states reserve the right to create restrictions on firearms.

The NRA will remain involved in judicial appointments to federal courts thereafter. To Republican senators, the message is clear: Support a Democratic judicial appointee, and there will be consequences. In 2012, when Richard Lugar, a Republican Senator from Indiana who voted to confirm Sotomayor, is up for reelection, the NRA runs an ad campaign reminding voters that he sent a gun-grabber to the bench. Lugar, who served in the Senate for over 35 years, loses his primary to a Tea Party candidate named Richard Mourdock.

03
Democrats pass laws allowing guns on Amtrak and in national parks

Fall 2009: In his first year in office, while Democrats hold a majority in both chambers of Congress, President Obama signs into law two bills that expand gun rights. The first allows licensed gun owners to carry concealed, loaded weapons into national parks and wildlife refuges. And the second, part of an omnibus spending bill, allows travelers on Amtrak trains to store unloaded, locked guns in their checked baggage. Both measures pass Congress with wide Democratic support.

04
One last time, the NRA spreads the wealth

2010 midterm election: The 2010 campaign cycle is the last in which the NRA broadly supports Democrats who maintain a strong pro-gun voting record. All told, the group spends nearly half a million dollars backing dozens of Democrats, 65 of them in the House of Representatives alone. But 2010 also marks the rise of the Tea Party, and when insurgent conservative candidates sweep Republicans back into control of the House, the NRA finds itself at risk of falling behind the rightwing tide. By 2014, the NRA’s support for Democratic candidates all but disappears.

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05
A gunman kills 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School

December 2012: The mass shooting in Newtown caps a series of high-profile shootings that bring gun violence back into the national consciousness.

In June 2011, Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is shot in the head outside a Safeway grocery store in her home state of Arizona. (After Giffords recovers, she goes on to form the gun violence prevention group Americans for Responsible Solutions.) One year later, a shooter opens fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12. The mass shooting at Sandy Hook follows just six months later. Reactions to the slaying of 20 schoolchildren pushes gun rights advocates and gun reform advocates further apart. On one end, Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, decries gun-free zones and calls for armed security in all American schools. On the other, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America emerges to pressure Democrats, and make gun control a voting issue for progressives.

06
A bipartisan proposal to expand background checks fails in the Senate

April 2013: Five months after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey introduce an amendment that would expand background checks to cover firearms purchases at gun shows and on the Internet. The measure requires 60 votes to proceed, which means the sponsors will not only need support from all 55 members of the Democratic caucus, but also from at least five Republicans. Manchin and Toomey make a number of concessions to entice red state Democrats and Republicans to support the proposal, including one that would allow licensed firearms dealers to sell handguns across state lines.

 
But the Manchin-Toomey proposal winds up receiving only 54 votes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who supports the bill, votes against it for procedural reasons, while four other Democrats — Mark Pryor, Heidi Heitkamp, Mark Begich, Max Baucus — oppose it on behalf of their conservative constituents. Meanwhile, three Republicans, in addition to Toomey, vote in favor of the bill: Mark Kirk, John McCain, and Susan Collins.

07
Democrats win in Virginia while taking on the NRA in its home state

November 2013: Gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe disregards conventional wisdom in a gun-friendly state, celebrating his F rating from the NRA while positioning himself as a full-throated supporter of gun control measures. His position vividly contrasts with that of his opponent, the arch-conservative Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli. Democrat Mark Herring is also victorious in the attorney general’s race after highlighting his record supporting gun-safety legislation.

In this purple state, the success of candidates who support stricter gun laws underscores how changing demographics have altered voter coalitions: “Over the years, the commonwealth has become more urban and suburban,” Herring’s campaign manager later writes in the Washington Post. “We found broad support in the Washington suburbs, Richmond and Norfolk for comprehensive background checks and ending the gun-show loophole.”

08
Fealty to the gun lobby fails to protect a two-term senator

November 2014: Despite Democrat Mark Pryor’s loyalty to the NRA’s positions on major gun bills — including Manchin-Toomey — the NRA puts its money and muscle behind his challenger, Representative Tom Cotton. Deciding it no longer needs to protect even friendly Democrats, the organization pours almost $3 million into promoting Cotton; in a less polarized era, it might have backed Pryor for his good deeds. Pryor recently told The Trace that the NRA “isn’t fair with Democrats, even when they have the same voting record as Republicans.” In what was supposed to be a tight race, Pryor winds up losing by 17 percentage points.

09
A mass shooting at a historically black church pushes gun issues into a young presidential campaign

June 2015: A racist gunman named Dylann Roof fatally shoots nine African American congregants at Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina. Less than a week after the devastating attack, Hillary Clinton delivers a speech on gun violence and race relations, embracing gun control as a central feature of her presidential campaign.

“Those nine righteous men and women who invited a stranger into their midst to study the Bible with them, someone who did not look like them, someone who they had never seen before, their example and their memory show us the way,” she says. “Let us be resolved to make sure they did not die in vain — not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.”

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After the speech, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia describes a new rationale for Democrats facing the prospect of squaring off against the NRA. “I think she has no illusion that even if she didn’t say a word about guns, the NRA would be out there blasting her to say she had a conspiratorial plan to work with the U.N. to take everybody’s guns away,” he tells the Washington Post. “So why not go head-on on an issue that will improve safety?”

10
A historic Supreme Court ruling takes the air out of a hot button issue

June 2015: On June 26, the Supreme Court hands down the landmark opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges that says states may not longer restrict to the right to marry to heterosexual couples. The decision caps a sea change in social mores and legal thinking on gay rights — and largely removes a litmus test issue from national politics.

But multiple polls show that even as conservatives have inched toward the middle on gay marriage (along with immigration), their voters are moving rightward on gun rights. Democrats see gun violence prevention — and the inflexibility of the NRA-Republican alliance — as providing a stark, motivating choice. “Democrats are going to have to reconvene the Obama coalition for 2016, and this has very high interest,” Emily Tisch Sussman, a past head of Young Democrats for America and now a campaign director for the Center for American Progress, tells The Trace’s Alex Yablon.

11
Hillary Clinton launches her first attack on rival Bernie Sanders’s gun record

October 2015: During the first 20 minutes of the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 season, the candidates mention guns more times than they did in all 14 debates leading up to the 2008 election. With Clinton, Sanders, and Martin O’Malley largely in agreement on gun control, the contenders vie for which of them are most reviled by the National Rifle Association. But there is some daylight between Clinton and Sanders on policy specifics, and Clinton seizes on it as a way to burnish her progressive credentials while raising questions about the principles of her chief rival.

Sanders had voted for previously arcane 2003 legislation — the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act — that shields gun stores and manufacturers from many types of civil liability. With families of the Sandy Hook victims seeking to overcome that very law in order to sue manufacturers of the military-style assault rifle used in the attack, his position has the potential to casts him in an unflattering light. Clinton’s barrage on the issue continues until Sanders finally walks back his support for the law, thereby leaving leading Democrats as lock-step on gun reform as Republicans have been on gun rights.

12
The terror gap becomes a talking point

November and December 2015: Lawmakers in the United States acknowledge that under current gun laws, radical Islamic terrorists know how to secure weapons here, after terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State open fire in Paris in November. The “terror gap” — the loophole that allows individuals on terror watch lists and no-fly lists to buy guns — takes center stage in the gun debate. Less than three weeks later, a couple from Pakistan who professed commitments to jihadism and martyrdom guns down 14 public employees at a health center in San Bernardino.

In the wake of the shooting, Democrats parade Republican reluctance to closing the terror gap as a sign of the party’s intransigence on gun policy. Protective of their historical advantage on national security, GOP politicians can’t oppose closing the terror gap. Heedful of the NRA, they also can’t advance their own workable fix.

13
An emotional President Obama announces a new slate of executive actions on gun issues

January 2016: For all the drama of the rollout speech, the contents of the administration’s plan are wan, including a push for more funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; more background check examiners, which requires budget authorization that Republicans inevitably withhold; and directive meant to expand background checks by requiring more private sellers to secure dealer licenses, which many of those sellers seem comfortable ignoring. But by declaring gun reform to be at the top of his agenda for his final year in office — and explicitly highlighting the limits of his own powers to enact the necessary changes — Obama keeps the issue on the media’s radar, puts the onus on Republicans and the NRA, and gives validation to activists who not long ago struggled to get the White House’s attention.

14
The newspaper of record musters its resources to cover urban gun violence like a war

April 2016: Chicago notched a record year for gun violence in 2015. But heads turn when the shooting and death tolls from the first three months of 2016 effortlessly top the carnage from the same period in the previous year. The New York Times deploys a big multimedia team to document every shooting in the city over Memorial Day weekend, commissions polls and data analysis on the gulf between Chicago’s gun violence rates and New York’s lower per capita counts, and commissions a related deep dive series on the hundreds of multi-victim shootings that occur annually in America but ordinarily never make headlines. Implicit in the wave of coverage is a promise: the Times is going to use its pedigree and still sizeable platform to keep the issue in the news.

15
Forty-nine dead in Orlando

June 12, 2016: The deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history teaches Americans that they have not yet seen the worst. The carnage is so extensive that the candlelight vigil — a scene now as familiar as the lines of terrified civilians being led away from the scenes of the gunfire in the first hours of an incident — has to be delayed by a day to give overwhelmed Orlando city services a chance to catch up. By then the shooter’s mid-rampage claims of allegiance to ISIS have the terror gap fight burning red hot. When the House of Representatives holds the customary moment of silence the day after, Democrats refuse to take part, saying that new laws, not prayers, are what the situation calls for.

16
Democrats go all-in with a filibuster and a dramatic sit-in

June 2016: Congressional inertia on gun control cracks and then crumbles as Democrats seize an opportunity to push for legislation that would close the terror gap while addressing more general policies, like the background check system and the dearth of public health research on gun violence. Democrat Chris Murphy, the junior senator from Connecticut, is the first to take action, conducting a nearly 15-hour filibuster three days after the Orlando shooting to push Republicans to schedule a vote on gun bills. Democrats in the House of Representatives make their move exactly one week later, sitting on the House floor for 26 hours to demand that Speaker Paul Ryan schedule similar gun control proposals for a vote.

The Senate measures fail, and the prospects for a compromise terror gap co-sponsored by eight Republican and Democratic senators dim when maneuvering by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lets vulnerable GOP members facing tough reelections in November slip off the hot seat. On the House side, Ryan adjourns without scheduling a vote, but Democrats hint that their pressure tactics might resume on July 5 when members reconvene.

A party that at the beginning of the Obama presidency ducked the issue is now the one throwing the punches as it seeks to rewrite the political wisdom on guns. “We want to say we broke the NRA,” a Democratic Senate leadership aide tells The Trace’s D.C. correspondent, Dan Friedman, on the day before the sit-in. They also want to win races, of course. Whether attempting the first yields the second is now one of the big questions for this election cycle, and beyond.