By Philip Rucker
The Washington Post
For the first time in more than a decade, Democratic presidential aspirants see a political advantage in championing far-reaching restrictions on guns.
In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley rolled out a sweeping plan Monday to ban military-style firearms and ammunition clips as well as overhaul mental health and school safety programs.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached agreement with state lawmakers to enact measures including the country's toughest assault weapons ban, saying that "no one needs 10 bullets to kill a deer."
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is pushing to mandate universal background checks on all gun sales — a controversial move in a Western state where gun enthusiasts usually hold sway.
And in Washington, Vice President Joe Biden is at the center of a fierce fight over the nation's federal gun laws. Advocates on both sides have cycled in and out of Biden's conference room this month as he hammers out the details of the Obama administration's impending plan to curb gun violence.
The four men — each a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 — are staking out strong positions in the emotionally charged gun debate. Long dormant in national politics, the gun control issue has been revived in the wake of the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 small children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
"Finally, Democrats are getting out of Plato's cave when it comes to guns and are not fearful of their own shadow on this issue," strategist Chris Lehane said. "Democrats used to play defense. Now you have Democrats who recognize this is a winning issue and are playing offense on the issue."
On the Republican side, many of the potential contenders in four years are lying low on the issue, leaving it to the National Rifle Association and conservative lawmakers without national ambitions to make arguments against further gun regulations.
Even with the shifting landscape, the political obstacles to gun-law changes remain daunting in Washington. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday that he doubted an assault-weapons ban could pass the House and added that it would be a close call in the Senate, as well.
Still, the shift among Democrats is remarkable given more than a decade of near silence on gun issues within the party. During the 2000 Democratic presidential primaries, challenger Bill Bradley lured Al Gore into a debate over gun laws — then, as now, a hot-button culture-war issue.
"I'm not sure that it was our preference to run on guns, but it was a necessity to take a tough stand on that issue," said Robert Shrum, one of Gore's top strategists. "You had to. It was a litmus test in the Democratic primary."
After Gore narrowly lost the White House, Democrats widely concluded it was best to stay away from guns on the national level.
In 2008, the issue was so absent that Republican operatives struggled to find any video evidence of then-Sen. Barack Obama's support for an assault weapons ban. Their best hit? An audio recording of Obama telling donors that white working-class voters sometimes "get bitter and they cling to guns or religion."
Now, however, the guns debate is becoming a litmus-test moment for Democrats who hope to succeed Obama in the White House.
"In the primaries in 2016, you'll have people look back to see where candidates were in the first part of 2013," Lehane said.
The same could not be said for the GOP, however. Most Republicans eyeing runs in 2016 are staying in the background, at least until Obama announces his proposals.
"Being on the extreme of either side of this debate is probably not where you want to be," said Phil Musser, a strategist on past GOP presidential campaigns. "Most Republicans are Second Amendment supporters, but gun control issues aren't definitional drivers of their political persona, and perhaps that's a reason you're seeing a more muted tone."
But some potential candidates apparently feel pressure to offer solutions. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, announced a plan Friday for his state to share data with the national criminal background check system designed to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill.
And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, while dodging a question about whether he supports an assault weapons ban, told NBC News last week: "The fact is, I'm willing to have that conversation. That's more than a lot of people will say."
On the Democratic side, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — who would instantly become the front-runner for her party's presidential nomination should she seek it — fell ill shortly after the Newtown shooting and just returned to work last week. But her husband, former president Bill Clinton, took a strong stance against high-capacity ammunition clips in a speech last Wednesday.
"I grew up in this hunting culture, but this is nuts," the Arkansas native said. "Why does anybody need a 30-round clip for a gun? Why does anybody need one of those things that carries 100 bullets?"
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, considered a potential national candidate, is among those leading the charge in the Senate for stricter gun laws. Cuomo, meanwhile, was dubbed "America's Sheriff" by the Daily News after calling for prohibitions on the sale of military-style assault weapons and ammunition clips over seven bullets.
In Maryland, O'Malley, a former Baltimore mayor who used his record of fighting crime to propel him to the governorship, wants his state to be a laboratory for the prevention of gun violence. He said on Monday that he would push to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, require new licensing rules and introduce legislation to strengthen school security and aid those with mental illness.
O'Malley unveiled the proposals at a gun-policy summit in Baltimore headlined by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a political independent and a leading advocate of gun control. "There is a sickness in our country, and that sickness is gun violence," O'Malley said.
But by far the biggest platform is being occupied by Biden, who is said to be eyeing a third presidential run in 2016. Three days in a row this week, Biden's aides have ushered the press into his private meetings with interest groups to hear him make remarks.
Biden spoke passionately not only about the need to reform gun laws — "The public wants us to act," he said — but also about his own history. As a senator, Biden helped author the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired a decade later, and earned a reputation for being tough on crime.
"In all my years involved in the issues, there is nothing that has pricked the consciousness of the American people," Biden said last Thursday. "There is nothing that has gone to the heart of the matter more than the image people have of little six-year-old kids riddled, not shot, but riddled — riddled — with bullet holes in their classroom."
If Obama ultimately proposes a far-reaching plan that includes, say, an assault weapons ban, it would improve Biden's standing within the Democratic Party regardless of whether Congress passes it, Shrum predicted.
"If Obama can get something done, it will be to his credit and to Biden's," Shrum said. "And then if Biden runs, he'll say, 'I wanted to do more, and as president I will do more.' I don't see that that issue can cut against Biden."