DES MOINES — Democrats running for president have engaged in bitter disputes this year over topics like health care, immigration and criminal justice.
But after mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, jolted the nation earlier this month, the field of 2020 contenders seemed to move in lock step toward more aggressive gun control positions without resistance from the party’s moderate voices.
The result is that an issue currently at the top of voters’ minds is producing little disagreement between the centrist and liberal Democrats seeking the White House. Instead, a contest has emerged over who can deliver the most effective pitch for new gun control measures, with the proper emotional punch.
“On policy, people aren’t that far apart,” Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said in an interview aboard the Sky Glider gondola at the Iowa State Fair. “I think the difference is who can actually get this done.”
[Sign up for our politics newsletter and join the conversation around the 2020 presidential race.]
Democrats are used to arguing over health care, a debate that has been central to the party’s identity for decades. But there hasn’t been a robust policy discussion on gun control in a presidential primary since 2000, when Vice President Al Gore and former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey debated the wisdom of a national gun licensing system.
Now, candidates are navigating a Democratic electorate driven in part by young voters who came of age in the mass shooting era and who have little tolerance for kowtowing to a long-held view that gun rights are sacrosanct. The idea of a gun licensing system has returned to the center of the discussion, backed by candidates like Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and many candidates have vowed to reinstate a ban on assault-style weapons.
The more modest playbook of recent years — calling for universal background checks on gun purchasers and more federal funding for research into gun violence — no longer satisfies Democrats, even though both proposals are anathema to Republicans aligned with the National Rifle Association.
“Democrats running for president, I think, have got to be bolder than what they are on this gun issue,” former Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa said Sunday after appearing at an event in West Des Moines with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
In the health care debate, candidates from the party’s centrist wing have warned of scaring off voters with ambitious plans like “Medicare for all.” But there is no Democrat in the race warning that aggressive gun control proposals go too far.
Asked if it was possible for the party’s nominee to go too far on gun control, Ms. Gillibrand replied: “No. I think the American people are behind us.”
Nowhere was the power of the movement — and new financing behind it — more evident than Saturday in Des Moines, where 16 presidential candidates appeared at a gun violence forum organized in less than a week by Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control organization financed primarily by Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor.
“I have to tell you, it says a lot about how much you’ve accomplished that so many presidential candidates are here today,” Mr. Bloomberg told a crowd of local activists and gun violence survivors who were bused and flown in for the event. “The big reason for the historic unity in the Democratic Party on guns, and the reason this historic gathering has come together, is that we built a grass-roots army with six million supporters.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts used the Everytown forum to roll out a plan that set a goal of reducing gun deaths by 80 percent and called for a gun licensing program. On Sunday, former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas also came out for gun licensing, as have several other candidates.
And former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., in an opinion piece published this week in The New York Times, said he wanted to reinstate the ban on assault-style weapons he championed in 1994. (The prohibition expired when Republicans who controlled Congress in 2004 declined to renew it.)
Mr. Booker, who unveiled a gun control plan in May, said in an interview that calling only for background checks and a ban on assault-style weapons was not sufficient to solve the nation’s gun violence problem.
“We need to shift the terms of this debate and make solutions bolder, more evidence-based and shift what people think of as common sense,” Mr. Booker said.
Despite Mr. Booker’s push, Democrats interviewed at the Everytown forum and elsewhere in Iowa this weekend struggled to identify significant differences among the candidates’ approaches to gun control.
“They pretty much all had the same message,” said Anne Suchomel, 71, who traveled from southeast Minnesota to attend the forum in Des Moines.
At the state fair pork chop line, Scott Kirkpatrick, a retired golf professional from nearby Windsor Heights, Iowa, said he failed to see “much difference between any of them on guns.”
In Iowa’s rural precincts, Democratic officials warned that talk of licensing and bans on types of weapons were likely to repel voters in places where gun ownership rates are higher than in urban Des Moines.
“One big hurdle for our nominee will be to overcome the stereotype that Democrats want to take away everyone’s guns,” said Catherine Crooks, the Democratic Party chairwoman in Franklin County, population 10,124. “That isn’t the goal, the goal is responsible gun ownership. It needs to be made quite clear.”
Instead of articulating differences on gun control, the candidates are aiming to demonstrate their commitment to the issue through emotional displays.
Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana speaks about losing his 11-year-old nephew to a 1994 school shooting in Butte, Mont. Ms. Gillibrand describes her conversion from an N.R.A.-backed member of Congress to a gun control proponent by talking about meeting with mothers of gun violence victims in Brooklyn after her 2009 appointment to the Senate.
And at the annual Wing Ding dinner Friday night in Clear Lake, Iowa, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, who is currently an afterthought in polls, brought the crowd to its feet by recounting a bus trip he took last week to Kentucky, where he protested Senator Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold a vote on legislation that would expand background checks.
“We took the fight to his backyard, telling him that we need gun reform in the United States of America and we need it now. We need it now,” Mr. Ryan said. “People are dying on the streets of this country, getting killed by weapons that were made for battlefields, not neighborhoods and places like Dayton, Ohio.”
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, who enacted expanded background checks and limits on the size of ammunition magazines in his state after a 2012 shooting that killed 12 at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., said the N.R.A. would caricature whoever wins the nomination as a gun-grabber, so Democrats may as well offer an assertive platform.
Mr. Hickenlooper is familiar with the N.R.A.’s influence: It backed a successful recall campaign in 2013 to remove from office two Democratic state senators who voted for the new laws.
“Whoever the Democrat is, the N.R.A. is going to go full hog to beat them,” Mr. Hickenlooper said. “The N.R.A. is first and foremost a trade association, and their members need to sell more guns. They’re going to push as much money as they can raise against whoever the Democratic candidate is.”
Democrats here said the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton left them focused on finding a candidate who would enact gun control measures — and concerned for their own safety.
Anthony Atlas, 33, who works for an agriculture technology company in Iowa City, brought his 6-month-old son, Orin, to the state fair Saturday. For the first time, he said, he worried about what would happen if a shooting took place at the fairgrounds.
“I was concerned about going to the state fair,” he said. “That’s a weird thing to worry about.”