PHILADELPHIA — Fifteen years after they concluded that gun control was a losing issue for them, Democrats say it’s time for a rethink, convinced that a spate of mass shootings has changed the politics and left Americans clamoring for action.
From the stage this week, a powerful lineup of victims and family members of those killed in shootings begged for gun bans, saying the deranged shooters would have caused far less damage without the semi-automatic rifles many of them used.
Hillary Clinton may be a flawed messenger — in the 2008 election, she ran as a defender of gun rights — but to the victims and those close to them, she is the best chance they have to win a fight they have lost for decades.
On Tuesday, the mothers of recent victims of gun violence were given a prominent platform at the Democratic National Convention, with some in the crowd chanting, “Black lives matter.”
Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old who was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Florida in February 2012, acknowledged that she was an “unwilling participant” in the movement.
“Hillary Clinton has the compassion and understanding to support grieving mothers,” she said. “She has the courage to lead the fight for common-sense gun legislation.”
Erica Smegielski, the daughter of Dawn Hochsprung, the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School, said Wednesday that she should not have been there and did not want to be. Hochsprung was killed along with five other educators and 20 children in the December 2012 massacre.
“I’m here alone, without my mother, while too many politicians cower behind the gun lobby instead of standing with American families,” Ms. Smegielski said.
Recent mass shootings have pushed law and order to the top of the political debate, but Republicans and Democrats approach it very differently. Republicans paid homage to the police officers shot in two ambushes, while Democrats focused on people who died at the hands of police.
Ted Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who has studied the politics of firearms, said gun control is a way to try to walk the line between the Black Lives Matter movement and law enforcement.
“They want to say we care about the police; we care about young African-Americans that are victims of gun violence by folks who should not be allowed to [get] a gun,” he said.
But the issue has been troublesome for Democrats. Some strategists cite 2000 presidential nominee Al Gore’s support for an assault weapons ban as a reason he lost the election.
Four years later, nominee John F. Kerry made a point of going on a hunt just ahead of the election to try to assure gun owners that he understood their views. As recently as the 2008 primaries, Mrs. Clinton herself was touting her pro-gun bona fides on the campaign trail.
During this year’s campaign, though, Mrs. Clinton ran to the left of Sen. Bernard Sanders on gun control by criticizing him for supporting legislation shielding firearms manufacturers from liability lawsuits.
Rita Triviz, a Clinton delegate from New Mexico, said Mrs. Clinton’s call for stricter gun control is a major reason she is supporting the former first lady.
“She’s the one strong enough to take on the [National Rifle Association],” she said.
Delaware state Rep. J.J. Johnson said Wilmington was recently dubbed “Murder Town, USA” because of the prevalence of gun violence there.
“Guns are too easy to get in the city,” he said. “Young men are actually shooting each other or arguing or fighting because of issues on Facebook and Instagram. Something needs to be done.”
“For me personally, it’s an issue I think we need to address,” he said. “And I think a lot of my colleagues feel the same way.”
Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland, said public opinion has swung modestly in favor of stronger gun laws.
A Gallup poll released in October found that 55 percent of Americans said gun laws in the country should be stricter. That number swelled to 58 percent immediately after the Sandy Hook massacre before dipping back below 50 percent, where it had been for several years before the assault.
But polling also has shown that single-issue gun voters are more likely to favor gun rights than stricter controls — partially illustrating why Democrats have struggled on the issue.
Mr. Spitzer said the way the issue is playing out this election season may give Mrs. Clinton little downside if she campaigns aggressively on gun control.
“The gun rights people have demonized Hillary Clinton from Day One,” said Mr. Spitzer, author of the book “The Politics of Gun Control.” “So even if she was silent on the issue, they would still be pummeling her.”
Donald Trump has accused Mrs. Clinton of wanting to abolish the Second Amendment.
In addition to attacking Mrs. Clinton, the NRA and gun rights enthusiasts also have tried to highlight the self-protection side of the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. The NRA’s political victory fund launched a television ad Thursday featuring Kimberly Corban, who was raped at gunpoint in 2006 when she was in college.
“The thought of owning a handgun terrified me, until one morning a stranger broke into my apartment and raped me,” Ms. Corban says in the ad. “He had evil in his eyes, and I was helpless. My fear of firearms disappeared when I got my second chance at life.”
Mr. Jelen said, though, that generational differences on the issue give Mrs. Clinton an opportunity to win over hesitant supporters of Mr. Sanders.
“There are real generational effects, especially in gun ownership, that the younger you are, the less likely you are to own a gun,” he said.
But a reliance on younger voters, who also comprised a good part of the coalition that elected President Obama in 2008 and 2012, would also seem to present a risk in any broader electoral strategy.
“As James Carville once pointed out, there’s a word for candidates who rely on the youth vote,” Mr. Jelen said. “They’re called losers.”
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