Democrats are vowing to embrace gun control on the campaign trail this year, seizing on what they view as a shift in political winds while recognizing that Congress is unlikely to pass any new reforms before November.
Strategists say it’s a smart move given there is more public support for gun reform than ever before following a deadly mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., in mid-February that sparked anti-gun violence rallies in cities across the country last weekend.
But gun reform –– which has long been considered the third rail in Washington politics –– also risks alienating certain voters, especially in some of the GOP strongholds that Democrats are targeting this election cycle.
Democrats acknowledge that the backlash to recent calls from former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens to repeal the Second Amendment underscores the public fears about a “slippery slope” when it comes to gun control.
“It hurts the message,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “It basically raises the hackles of a lot of people who think Democrats are out to take away all the guns. It scares the bejesus out of people.”
“Democrats should make the distinction that we’re not trying to take away your Second Amendment right, but we do want strict limits on ownership and sales on guns that are weapons of war,” he added.
The intensified focus on gun reform marks something of a shift for the Democrats, who shied away from the issue for years after suffering sweeping election losses in 1994 — a wave largely attributed to the assault weapons ban they’d championed earlier that year.
Similarly, presidential hopeful Al Gore lost several traditionally Democratic states as he sought the White House in 2000 –– including West Virginia and his home state of Tennessee –– where voters were exceedingly wary of his gun positions.
Last month’s shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida — where a 19-year-old former student has been charged with killing 17 people with an AR-15-style rifle — has spurred what Democrats view as a shift in the politics of the gun debate, with media-savvy student activists helping keep the issue front and center.
Nationwide marches for gun control last week and a host of recent polls showing overwhelming public support for tougher gun restrictions in the wake of the Parkland shooting have galvanized Democrats behind the idea that embracing gun reform is not only smart public-safety policy but something that will pay dividends at the polls
“This is going to be a serious issue in the elections. … Either we change laws or we change who’s in Congress. The kids get that,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.). “The Republicans, as they have for five years, can just keep stuff off the floor [but] they can’t keep everybody out of the voting booth. So they do that at their peril.”
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who represents Parkland, said that “keeping kids safe ought to be the priority of our government. And in a lot of places we have one candidate who stands on the side of kids and public safety and morality, and we have another candidate who stands solely with the gun makers.”
“Yeah, you bet it’s going to be an issue in the campaign,” he added.
Democrats are pointing to Conor Lamb’s recent victory in a conservative pocket of southwest Pennsylvania as a possible playbook for how Democratic candidates can embrace calls for gun reform in deep red territory.
Lamb, the underdog in the House special election, defended the Second Amendment while embracing tougher laws like an expansion of background checks. His improbable win has given new force to the argument that supporting gun restrictions is not political suicide for Democratic candidates, even in areas that overwhelmingly backed President Trump in 2016.
“To win campaigns you need to have candidates who are their district. And so candidates should most certainly talk about the economic issues that we face,” said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), the head of the Democrats’ gun-violence prevention task force. “But they also need to talk about things that are important to the people they want to represent, and keeping your kids alive is certainly one of those issues.”
“I don’t think there’s any mystery that this has become a political issue.”
Congress passed several provisions within a massive 2018 spending bill in March that were designed to reduce gun violence, particularly in schools, in the wake of the Florida shooting.
While the measures included bolstering the background check system before gun sales and empowering federal researchers to examine gun violence as a threat to public health, among other provisions, the changes placed no new restrictions on gun sales, merchandise or ownership.
While Democrats say they’ll continue to press for those changes in the GOP-led Congress, they’re also conceding the political reality that their favored reforms — including universal background checks and an assault weapons ban — aren’t likely to reach the floor this year.
“You have to realize the practicality of what is the political environment,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) acknowledged ahead of the march in Washington, D.C., last week. “The political climate is so dominated by the NRA that it’s going to be very difficult to get votes [on reforms like an assault weapons ban].”
With that in mind, Democrats are vowing to take the issue straight to voters, hoping an injection of fresh energy from student survivors from the Parkland shooting will prove a tipping point in the debate.
While campaigning on gun control might not work in every district, strategists say that the issue is likely to be a big winner for Democrats in some of the marginal, suburban districts that could be key to helping Democrats take back the House in the fall.
That nationwide movement inspired by the Parkland student activists, dubbed “Never Again,” may also increase enthusiasm and voter turnout in the midterms, which has historically disadvantaged Democrats.
“You’ve seen lots of voters who have become single-issue voters around gun safety, which is something that those who oppose gun safety measures have always been successful at doing,” said Deutch.
In a show of how much power the movement has amassed, a number of advertisers started pulling out of Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s show this week after she posted a tweet critical of one of the Parkland students.
“This has galvanized millions of millennials, which makes it easier,” Bannon said. “When there’s this much outrage, you’re going to have a lot more people involved in the political process, and that’s good for Dems.”