Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker says gun violence “is an everyday experience to people like me.”
As he unveiled a wide-ranging gun control proposal this week and showcased his call for federal licensing of firearms, the Democrat from New Jersey and former mayor of Newark -- one of the toughest cities in the nation -- emphasized that “I can’t stay away from this.”
Booker became the latest Democratic White House hopeful to make the issue of gun violence a top priority in the 2020 campaign. In the wake of the 2018 massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, gun control has returned to the center of the Democratic Party’s spotlight.
But underscoring how pursuing the issue could still be a risky strategy come the general election, Republicans are striking back at what they call "radical, far left policies" on guns.
“Each candidate is trying to out flank the rest of the 20 plus person field to the left on policy issues ranging from gun control, to healthcare, to taxes making them all less viable by the minute in a general election,” said Sarah Dolan, executive director of the pro-Republican opposition research shop America Rising.
The Republican National Committee ripped Booker's licensing plan as a "far-left" scheme to force gun owners through a "burdensome government approval process in order to possess a firearm."
The senator's sweeping proposal includes not only the license idea but a ban on assault weapons and limits on bulk purchases of firearms. Booker and other candidates doubled down on their calls in the wake of this week's Colorado school shooting.
While the gun control debate has flared on Capitol Hill in the wake of recent mass shootings, the escalating debate this year marks the first time in almost a generation that Democratic presidential candidates are heavily emphasizing gun violence on the campaign trail.
Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Republican Gov. George W. Bush battled over the issue in the 2000 election, one year after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The two candidates clashed, among other things, over moves to prevent cities from suing gun manufacturers.
But four years later, Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts didn’t make gun control a major focus of his campaign. Neither did President Barack Obama in his 2008 election and 2012 re-election. And while Hillary Clinton supported tightening gun laws, she didn’t spotlight her stance as the Democrats 2016 presidential nominee.
One likely reason for the lack of emphasis – a fear by Democratic contenders of losing rural voters.
But after dozens of high-profile incidents in recent years – from the Orlando, Florida nightclub mass shooting in 2016 where 49 were killed, to the Las Vegas concert massacre that left 58 dead and the Parkland mass shooting where 17 students and faculty were slain – tackling gun violence has become a top policy for Democratic congressional and presidential candidates.
“In my community, kids fear fireworks on the Fourth of July because they sound like gunshots,” Booker said as he released his plan. “In communities across the country, from Newark to Charlotte, from San Diego to Chicago, and everywhere in between, Americans are being killed and families are being torn apart. We must do better. We need to do better.”
In pushing his plan, Booker argued that just as a driver’s license demonstrates a person’s eligibility and proficiency to drive a car, “a gun license demonstrates that a person is eligible and can meet certain safety and training standards necessary to own a gun.”
Booker’s far from the only candidate emphasizing gun control.
Senator Kamala Harris of California, another 2020 contender, said last month that she too would move quickly to curb gun violence if elected to the White House, vowing to use executive action if Congress didn’t act in her first 100 days.
Rep. Eric Swalwell of California has also focused heavily on gun violence, emphasizing background checks for all gun sales and implementing an assault weapons ban.
And former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas – who’s also calling for such gun control measures – was asked earlier this week by a 14-year old in Iowa about the “little or no effort” that the federal government made to stop school shootings.
Her voice breaking, Milan Underberg said, "I'm afraid that, one day, I'll go to school and I'll never come out."
That incident, and the coverage it garnered, is another indication of how public opinion may be shifting on the issue.
“Gun violence has become a scourge. We’ve seen way too many horrors in recent memory. There’s an entire generation of young people who are growing up in an era of lockdown drills in their schools and it is an issue that you see widespread support for some level of gun control,” said Mo Elleithee, the founding executive director of Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service and a Fox News contributor.
According to a Fox News poll conducted last year, by a 13-percentage point margin voters considered protecting against gun violence more important than protecting gun rights (53-40 percent). More than 90 percent of those questioned favored universal background checks.
A Gallup poll conducted last year found that 87 percent of Democrats backed tougher gun law. But the level of support for stricter laws plunged to 31 percent among Republicans.
And the proliferation of gun control policy on the Democratic presidential campaign trail is prompting an early backlash from GOP foes.
“By signing on to radical, far left policies on guns, 2020 Democrats are showcasing what a Booker, Biden, Harris, etc. presidency would look like: the loss of Second Amendment freedoms,” Dolan said.