Is it safe for Democrats to talk gun control again?

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, about steps his administration is taking to reduce gun violence.
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, about steps his administration is taking to reduce gun violence. AP

Democrats are undergoing a fundamental shift on guns.

President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are ramping up calls for increased background checks for gun purchases and to restore federal funding for research into gun violence. Democrats running for the White House are elbowing one another to show which is tougher on guns.

Taken together, it underscores a political sea change from recent years when they saw such talk cost them the White House and control of Congress.

“Many Democrats just didn’t see it as a winning political issue, so they have laid low on it,” said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “But now, because of events, they’ve been revitalized on it.”

On Capitol Hill, Democrats forced a series of gun votes in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Senate in the aftermath of the terrorist shootings in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead. The votes failed but succeeded in drawing attention to the gun issue.

On the Democratic presidential campaign trail, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley are sparring over who would be the most aggressive on guns.

The argument is a bit of an about-face for Clinton, who tried to appeal to gun owners during the 2008 presidential campaign by talking about shooting with her father. And Sanders’ opponents are accusing him of being a Johnny-Come-Lately on gun control because of previous votes he cast against gun-related measures in Congress.

Newtown changed everything. . . . Before that, Democrats didn’t talk about gun control. Didn’t want to. They thought it was a loser issue.

Adam Winkler, UCLA law professor and author of “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America”

It wasn’t so long ago that Democrats viewed the gun issue as political suicide. Many blamed the party’s push for the Brady Bill, which banned federal assault weapons and established background checks for gun purchases, for Democrats losing control of the House in 1994.

Hamilton said that several Democrats, rightly or wrongly, believed that the gun issue also contributed to former Vice President Al Gore losing his home state of Tennessee and West Virginia, and subsequently the White House, in the 2000 election.

Since then, Democratic candidates have tried to showcase themselves as friends of Second Amendment rights. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., is still famous for a 2010 campaign ad in which he touted his National Rifle Association support by shooting a copy of a cap-and-trade environmental bill with a hunting rifle.

Fast forward to 2013: Manchin co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., calling for expanded background checks for guns purchased at gun shows and online after the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn in 2012.

The measure fell six votes short in 2013. Senators rejected it again last month in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings on a 48-50 vote. Only one Democrat – Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota – voted against the bill.

So what’s helping fuel Democrats’ renewed vigor on gun control? Polls.

“Democrats have been kind of fortified, if you will, in their latent views and they’ve come out,” said Hamilton.

A Pew Research Center Study poll in August found that 85 percent of Americans favor expanded background checks for gun purchases. That support was bipartisan with 88 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans favoring increased background checks.

More significant for Democrats, the Pew poll and other surveys show that the bulk of the support for increased gun control measures comes from women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and urban dwellers with college and graduate degrees – the coalition that propelled Obama to the White House.

It looks like they (Democrats) are going hard on it now, but I’m more interested in what is the content of the advertising in the top Senate races months from now.

Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report

But the polls also reflect a partisan split over gun ownership versus gun control. In the Pew poll, 50 percent of Americans believe it’s more important to control gun ownership while 47 percent say it’s more important to protect gun rights.

Broken down by party, 73 percent of Democrats consider controlling gun ownership a priority while 71 percent of Republicans say protecting gun rights is a priority.

“I think the Republicans will try to use the president’s executive actions to motivate part of their base,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter.

That prospect may still make some Democrats tread cautiously.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., who chairs a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s program for vulnerable incumbent Democrats, said the party isn’t requiring its candidates to press the gun control issue in their campaigns.

Kildee said those who oppose gun control measures like the ones Obama addressed Tuesday “have an extreme point of view, and any time we can draw that distinction ... I think it’s a good thing for our overall brand.”

“Having said that, every member knows their district and understands the issues in terms of how they play into their district,” he added.

Surrounded by families who have lost loved ones due to gun violence, President Barack Obama announced a package of executive actions to expand background checks for gun purchases. While talking about the deaths of some of the youngest victims, the

And Obama’s recent orders on guns and plea for help from statehouses drew mixed responses from some of the nation’s 18 Democratic governors.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee followed up on Obama’s executive action with some of his own. He issued an executive order directing state, local agencies, and the University of Washington to collect and review data on firearm deaths and injuries and develop strategies to reduce those numbers.

“While Congress has failed for years to make progress on reducing gun violence, we are not afraid to take action in Washington state,” Inslee said at a news conference Wednesday.

But Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock urged a “common sense” conversation about guns, adding that “this discussion is too important for the president to circumvent Congress with a stroke of a pen.”

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

Related stories from McClatchy DC