WASHINGTON — For the first time in two decades, Democratic presidential candidates are engaged in a politically fraught debate on gun-control policy as campaigns and advocacy groups assess the nation’s evolving views of an issue long considered a land mine for the left.
In recent weeks, Senator Cory Booker called for a national gun license program, Senator Kamala Harris said she would implement a host of executive actions if Congress failed to act and Representative Eric Swalwell proposed a mandatory buyback program for military-style weapons.
Red-clad activists — most of them mothers — from the gun-control organization of Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, are an ever-present force at Democratic campaign events, and rare is the televised town hall in which a Democratic candidate isn’t pressed on what they would do to combat gun violence.
It’s a far cry from how Democrats have approached gun politics in recent presidential campaigns. Not since the 2000 presidential primary between Al Gore and Bill Bradley have Democratic presidential candidates held a prolonged discussion about restricting gun rights.
Since then, John Kerry went pheasant hunting for a campaign photo-op in 2003. Barack Obama largely avoided the issue in 2008 and 2012. In 2016, Hillary Clinton attacked Bernie Sanders’s past positions opposing gun restrictions, but neither candidate offered new proposals for gun-control legislation.
“If you look at past cycles, at best they were dipping their toe in the waters and now they’re diving in head first,” said John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control group funded by Mr. Bloomberg. “It shows the changed political calculus.”
At the same time, the gun-control movement’s chief nemesis, the National Rifle Association, is mired in bitter internal battles over its finances that could imperil the organization. After spending $60 million to back President Trump in the 2016 election, the N.R.A. spent just $20 million on the 2018 midterm contests. N.R.A. officials have stayed out of the Democratic candidates’ gun-control debate, concluding that weighing in on competing proposals would only help Democratic candidates’ fund-raising.
The 2020 Democratic presidential primaries will now determine what voters will accept as good enough on gun control. After years of a failed push to enact federal universal background checks for new gun purchases, Mr. Booker and Mr. Swalwell are on the leading edge of a push to go well beyond — into licensing and potential confiscation of firearms.
“Gone are the days when the only politically acceptable thing to talk about is background checks,” said Kristin Brown, the president of the Brady campaign, the oldest gun-control organization in Washington.
Mr. Bloomberg’s group spent $30 million on the 2018 midterm elections and is poised to make itself a central player in the presidential primary. The organization, which includes the Moms Demand Action grass-roots network, plans Friday to send an 18-part questionnaire to the 23 Democratic presidential candidates, Mr. Trump and his Republican challenger, Bill Weld. The organization will use the results to award candidates a seal of approval called the Gun Sense Candidate distinction.
For each of the questions, candidates are asked: “If you have ever held a different position than the answer above, please explain what changed your mind.” Candidates who meet the group’s standard will be invited to the Moms Demand Action annual convention, held this year in August in Washington. The event drew 1,000 supporters last summer when it was held in Atlanta.
Mr. Bloomberg himself, who along with his groups spent more than $112 million on the 2018 midterm elections, has yet to engage directly with the 2020 candidates. Since declaring in March that he would not seek the White House himself, he has spoken to just one presidential hopeful — former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. — according to Howard Wolfson, Mr. Bloomberg’s political aide.
Everytown’s questionnaire includes queries about whether candidates support universal background checks, restricting assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and repealing a 2005 law — which Bernie Sanders, then a House member, voted for — that gave gun manufacturers immunity from civil lawsuits related to shootings.
Mr. Sanders’s past positions on gun control loom over the debate in 2020. In 1990 he won his first federal race for the House with N.R.A. support. Throughout much of his career Mr. Sanders was seen as a friend to the gun-rights movement, backing the 2005 immunity bill and opposing legislation that would have installed a five-day waiting period to purchase a handgun.
After being attacked repeatedly for his past positions during the bruising 2016 contest with Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Sanders in 2016, and again in 2017, co-sponsored legislation to repeal the gun manufacturers’ immunity. He earned Everytown’s Gun Sense Candidate distinction during his 2018 Senate re-election bid, as did each of the Democratic presidential candidates on the ballot last year.
But while leading gun control advocates largely welcome Mr. Bullock, Ms. Gillibrand and Mr. Ryan as converts, they remain wary of Mr. Sanders, a vestige of hurt feelings remaining from his 2016 campaign against Mrs. Clinton. Both Everytown and Giffords, the anti-gun organization founded by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, endorsed Mrs. Clinton — whose opposition research book on Mr. Sanders included 13 single-spaced pages under the heading “Bad on guns” — during the 2016 primary.
“It’s important that we see a little bit more from him on the campaign trail,” said Peter Ambler, the executive director of Ms. Giffords’s organization. “It’s fair for voters to expect him to consistently and forthrightly address the issue, and he really needs to communicate to the millions of gun-safety activists and voters across the country that he’s the person, if he’s elected president, who will take the fight to the N.R.A. and prioritize the fight.”
(For her part, Ms. Giffords sent an email praising Mr. Sanders’s record on gun control during the 2018 midterm election, as part of a fund-raising pitch to Sanders supporters for her organization.)
In his campaign announcement video in February, Mr. Sanders said “we must end the epidemic of gun violence in this country” and called for expanded background checks and a ban on the sale of military-style weapons.
“Senator Sanders will continue pushing for policy that reflects the urgency of this national crisis, including his three-decades-old support for an assault weapons ban,” Sanders’s campaign spokeswoman, Arianna Jones, said.
After the Parkland high school shooting last year, both Everytown and Giffords, pressured by grass-roots activists and the suddenly influential high school survivors, for the first time endorsed a ban on military-style weapons. Now during the presidential campaign some candidates are offering even more robust proposals that go beyond what the groups are eager to discuss.
“Folks are ready for bolder solutions and frankly are fed up with this incremental strategy that the movement has adopted over the last 20 years,” said Igor Volsky, the executive director of Guns Down America, which aims to reduce the number of guns in the country. “After 2016 there was a recognition that, hey listen, you’ve got to ask for what you want otherwise you’re not going to make any sort of progress at all.”
Mr. Swalwell, whose campaign has yet to attract broad support or attention, has proposed the most robust gun-control proposal in the form of the mandatory buyback of military-style weapons. The 38-year-old congressman said he drew his proposal from conversations with high school students who fear a school shooting.
“Those students want us to negotiate up rather than down. We don’t want to just play defense on every shooting,” he said.
Mr. Swalwell said, if he qualifies for the party’s presidential debates this summer, he won’t attack fellow Democrats who have opposed gun control reforms in the past.
“I’m not trying to shame anybody on this issue because there’s room for evolution,” he said.
Mr. Booker’s proposed federal gun licensing program would enact a minimum standard for gun ownership. Applicants would apply for a gun license like they do for passports and would have to submit fingerprints and sit for an interview with a federal agent. Ms. Harris said her executive actions would include mandating background checks for customers of firearms dealers who sell more than five guns per year.
“I’m fed up with this topic just to be honest with you,” Ms. Harris said Wednesday during a campaign stop in Greenville, S.C. “We have to require supposed adult leaders to look in the mirror on this one and understand that it is unconscionable that we are allowing the children of America to grow up in this state of legitimate fear.”
Mr. Feinblatt, during an interview Thursday, declined to endorse the Booker proposal. The Everytown questionnaire, he said, addresses only proposals that have both been fully researched and proven to have public support.
“These new ideas are not research tested,” Mr. Feinblatt said. “When you’re choosing from many, many different approaches to an issue, the bottom line has to be: Is there data that shows us this reduces gun violence?”
Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, called the Booker and Swalwell plans an unnecessary political risk.
“The question is: Where is the edge? Nobody was even close to it in 2016 or in 2018,” Mr. Bennett said. “We don’t know whether the return of things like gun licensing and registration will restore an edge that one could fall off, but we’re a little nervous about it.”