Gun Violence Takes Center Stage At Democratic Convention

PHILADELPHIA (CQ-Roll Call/TNS) -

Every couple of minutes, it seems to Daniel Hernandez, someone stops him to ask about gun violence.

Hernandez is the former intern for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. He helped save her life after she was shot in the head at a constituent event in 2011.

Hernandez, who is now running for a seat in the Arizona state house, says it’s a positive sign that voters are demanding to know a candidate’s position on gun control.

“For us, just even having folks talking about gun violence is a big step forward,” Hernandez said.

In 2012, Giffords opened the Democratic National Convention by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Aside from highlighting Giffords, Hernandez said there wasn’t much talk about gun violence at the party’s last convention.

But this year, Democrats at the national convention are trying to keep up the momentum to combat gun violence. That’s after a slate of recent shootings and congressional Democrats’ protests seeking to force a vote on gun control measures that captured the nation’s attention.

Democrats staged a daylong sit-in on the House floor, and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., led a nearly 15-hour filibuster in the Senate shortly before leaving the nation’s capital for summer.

After the sit-in and the filibuster, Democrats stressed the importance of keeping up momentum, and they’re hoping the convention can help them do that.

“This historically has been an issue that both parties have run away from,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn. “For the first time, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party in its platform are making this issue about needing to do better as a country to take common sense steps to help prevent gun violence.”

Esty represents Newtown, Conn., the site of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

On a hot Tuesday afternoon, Esty stood in Logan Square in downtown Philadelphia with roughly 200 other activists to call for action on gun violence prevention.

“Not one more!” the crowd chanted. Giffords’ group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, hosted the outdoor rally, which was one of several events throughout the convention focused on the issue.

A part of the convention program will be focused on preventing gun violence on Wednesday night. Murphy will speak Wednesday, along with Erica Smegielski, whose mother, Dawn, was the principal at Sandy Hook and was killed during the shooting.

Members of Congress will also be discussing the issue at panel discussions and delegation breakfasts throughout the week. Murphy coincidentally spoke Monday morning to the Florida delegation, the morning after a shooting outside of a nightclub in Fort Meyers that killed two and injured more than a dozen.

“It is a reminder of this daily epidemic that plagues this country,” Murphy said.

Emphasizing gun violence at the convention signals that the issue will be key to Clinton’s general election campaign against GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, Murphy said.

“There were a lot of people that said Hillary Clinton is going to talk about guns in the primary and drop it like a hot potato for the general,” Murphy said. “That hasn’t happened because she’s personally committed to the issue and it’s a winning issue in the general election.”

Clinton has been vocal about gun violence on the campaign trail.

And her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., is a proponent of gun control. In his first speech as the presumptive vice presidential nominee, he called the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech “the worst day of my life.”

Shootings in recent weeks have brought this issue to the forefront, beginning with a terrorist attack in June in Orlando, Fla., which became the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Shootings of black men at the hands of police, and shootings of police officers, have shaken the country, launching dialogues about racial tensions, policing and access to automatic weapons.

A recent Pew Research Center poll showed gun violence is a top issue for voters, with 72 percent of ranking it as a “very important.” Gun violence was the fifth most important issue, behind the economy, terrorism, foreign policy and health care.

Hernandez said it’s an issue he hears about often in his campaign to be a state representative in Arizona. It has come up in each of his five debates.

“I think this year is going to be different,” said Esty, the Newtown congresswoman. She said that as this issue is being discussed in campaigns, it’s no longer a “third rail” for candidates.

“I think we’re going to see this being used as a distinguishing, defining issue in a few races,” Esty said. “And we’ll know whether the tide has turned when we see what happens”