Contrast that with what you see today: Gun-control groups don’t even use the term “gun control,” with its big-government implications, favoring “preventing gun violence” instead. Democratic politicians preface every appeal for reform with a paean to the rights enshrined in the Second Amendment and bend over backwards to assure “law-abiding gun owners” they mean them no ill will. Even the president, a Chicago liberal who once derided rural voters’ tendency to “cling to guns or religion,” seeks to assure gun enthusiasts he’s one of them by citing a heretofore-unknown enthusiasm for skeet shooting, adding, “I have a profound respect for the traditions of hunting that trace back in this country for generations. And I think those who dismiss that out of hand make a big mistake.”

A frequent question in the current battle over gun control is why anyone should expect reform to succeed now when it’s failed repeatedly for the last 20 years. Maybe this is why: Between then and now, advocates of gun control got smarter. They’ve radically changed their message into one that’s more appealing to Middle America and moderate voters. …

Reid likely owes his majority to Democrats’ success in recent years at rebranding themselves as pro-gun and winning over rural, blue-collar, and Western voters. But as with the DLC’s larger project of moving the party to the center, this success has come at a cost to the party’s former progressive ideals. If the gun-control movement is more strategic now than it once was, it’s also less ambitious. The president’s package of reform proposals — carefully touted as “gun-violence prevention,” in keeping with the taboo on the potentially alienating phrase “gun control” — would have been considered incrementalist 15 years ago. And the same red-state Democrats who can thank smarter gun messaging for their Senate seats now may pose the greatest obstacle to measures like a new ban on assault weapons.