Gun Safety Ticket Marks New Era In National Politics

07/27/2016 10:28 am ET | Updated Jul 28, 2016

Try to imagine -- twelve, eight, or even four years ago -- a candidate for president citing "fought for common-sense gun reform" and "took on the gun lobby" as the qualifications she or he was looking for in a running mate.

Then imagine that potential veep doubling down, and promising not to rest until America closed the loopholes that allow dangerous people to buy guns without a background check.

That was the scene last Saturday in Florida, as Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine together sent a clear political signal. For the Clinton-Kaine ticket, saving lives from gun violence is a winning issue. And this new calculus amounts to nothing less than a sea change in how candidates talk about gun safety on the campaign trail.

You might remember how nominees and running mates, in both parties, used to talk about this issue.

We don't need stronger laws, they said. "We have to enforce the laws we've already got."

The best way to prevent violent crime? Forget the loopholes that let dangerous people buy guns. Instead, "Teach people good discipline, good character."

The conventional wisdom was that you couldn't touch the gun issue -- except, of course, if you were promoting your gun owner bona fides. It was too polarizing, too controversial. You either cited the gun lobby's talking points with the zeal of a convert, you reminisced about hunting, or you changed the subject. Otherwise, you couldn't win.

That was then. So what changed?

Starting in Virginia -- home of NRA headquarters, no less -- then-Governor Kaine led a successful push to strengthen the state's background check system after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. The governor earned an "F" grade from the NRA, which then spent big trying to defeat him in his 2012 Senate race. Kaine won, and the NRA lost.

Politicians noticed.

After the mass shooting at Sandy Hook, Colorado and Connecticut were among the first states to go beyond federal law and require a background check on all gun sales. The NRA's political arm made those states' gun safety governors top targets when they ran for reelection. They won anyway. The gun lobby lost.

Politicians noticed.

DC remains gridlocked on practically every issue -- from gun safety to funding the fight against Zika, you name it. But across the country, the states are breaking logjams on gun safety.

Background checks won in Washington State, thanks to a citizen-led ballot initiative. Voters didn't settle for the status quo, the same old divide between the people and their representatives. In fact, they bucked the state legislature, which, in the grip of the gun lobby, had turned down a background check proposal two years in a row. Now Nevada and Maine are holding similar ballot initiatives this Election Day.

After Oregon enacted a background check law, a gun lobby attempt to recall four lawmakers who supported it fizzled. Over a dozen states -- including Nikki Haley's South Carolina and Wisconsin's Scott Walker -- passed strong gun and domestic violence laws with bipartisan support.

Politicians are noticing.

Again and again, polls show that voters overwhelmingly back strong, sensible gun laws. Ninety percent of Americans support background checks, for example. The writing is on the wall, and this year, the candidates who choose to read the people's will on gun safety stand to reap the benefits.

In the presidential election, the choice is clear. Clinton and Kaine are the gun sense champions. They agree we can reduce the too-easy access to guns in America -- and reduce gun deaths -- without infringing on anyone's rights. They understand that freedom means being able to pray, go to the movies, go to a dance club, without fearing for your life.

The alternative is the gun lobby's vision for the country -- guns for anyone, anywhere, anytime.

We can take common-sense, constitutional action that's well within the political and legal mainstream. Or, we can yoke ourselves to the gun lobby.

When Senator Kaine takes the convention stage as a candidate for vice president on Wednesday, he'll speak after Erica Smegielski -- an advocate with Everytown for Gun Safety, and the daughter of the principal who was fatally shot at Sandy Hook. Lucy McBath -- a spokesperson for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and whose son was shot and killed in a dispute over loud music -- will already have spoken on Tuesday night.

Call it the Year of Gun Safety. This issue has moved from the shadows to center stage, as more Americans will see in prime time starting this week.

John Feinblatt is the president of Everytown for Gun Safety.