2020 candidates unite on gun control after El Paso, Dayton shootings
DES MOINES — Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bennet is pessimistic Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will even allow a vote on meaningful gun control legislation when Congress returns from its summer recess.
But Bennet, who represents Colorado in the Senate, urged gun rights activists gathered here over the weekend not to be frustrated by potential near-term setbacks. If they keep fighting, he assured them, they will be a difference-maker that helps Democrats beat President Trump, win control of the Senate and ultimately pass gun legislation that some teeth.
“Keep freaking doing what you’re doing,” Bennet said. “This has to be something that we’re doing day in and day out, month in and month out, between now and the election. And then if we’re successful in the election, which I hope we will be, then we need to make sure we finally enact the proposals that that you guys have been fighting for, for all these years.”
In the aftermath of this month’s mass shooting rampages by heavily-armed young men in El Paso and Dayton, Democrats are looking to galvanize the gun control movement’s energy and make American grief over the seemingly endless scourge of mass killings a central issue of the campaign for the White House.
And the success of federal and gubernatorial candidates who put gun policy front-and-center during the 2018 election cycle, as well as changing demographics of where Democratic votes come from, is impacting how politicians approach gun safety.
For President Trump’s part, he said last week he was interested in “meaningful background checks,” while also making clear he plans to consult the National Rifle Association on any measures.
Mass shooting toll: El Paso, Dayton make 251 mass shootings in the US in 216 days, more shootings than days in the year
The president’s insistence on keeping the NRA in the fold has led some Democratic contenders to conclude that it’s unlikely a deal will be made to expand background checks or any other consequential gun legislation.
More: Lawmakers have signaled interest in discussing gun control measures. Here’s what we know
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Gun control activists are ready
Leading gun control advocacy groups Everytown for Gun Safety and Mom’s Demand Action — both largely underwritten by billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — arranged a last-minute presidential forum in Iowa Saturday that brought hundreds of activists from across the country to hear the candidates on their gun control agenda.
Nearly all the candidates were already scheduled to be in Iowa for the traditional campaign stops at the Iowa State Fair and the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox. Sixteen of the candidates addressed the activists in person and four others — including former Rep. Texas Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, who has been off the campaign trail since the rampage in his hometown — recorded messages.
Still, the showing at the hastily organized event demonstrated that Democrats see gun control activists as critical backers in their push for the White House.
“If we had tried to put on an event like this in past elections, I’m not sure even one candidate would’ve shown up,” Bloomberg told the crowd of activists, who were predominantly women. “Their presence here reflects something that’s very important and very powerful.”
Top 2020 candidates are in lockstep expanded background checks, re-implementing an assault weapons ban, and passing red-flag laws to try to keep guns out of the hands of people who might be a danger to themselves or others. As a result, the forum was more about commiserating than a sorting of candidates on policy differences.
But to put the focus on gun control in Iowa — which has a large rural voting population and polling shows rural voters are more reluctant to back tighter gun laws than the nation-at-large — shows Democratic candidates believe it’s a wise bet to lean heavily on gun control activists to help them against Trump and down ballot.
“What I’m going to do…(if) you choose me to be your president is to take what you have turned from a cause into a movement,” former Vice President Joe Biden vowed.
Throughout the years, polls have consistently shown that a majority of American voters, including Republicans, support stronger gun control policies. Yet, there’s long been an intensity gap on the issue. Voters historically have ranked the economy, immigration, environment and foreign policy as higher priorities.
The trend also holds true with Democratic-leaning voters. Asked about issues important to them, likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa listed health care (55%), climate change (18%), beating Trump (15%), immigration (14%), education (7%), taxes (7%), jobs (6%), income inequality (6%), civil rights (6%) ahead of gun issues (5%), according to Monmouth University polling conducted from Aug. 1 to Aug. 4.
Gun issues were tracking at about 3% over the first three nights of the polling, but climbed up to the 10% on the final night of the polling which was conducted after both the El Paso and Dayton shootings, according to Monmouth.
The key suburban vote
Still, as the Democratic Party’s base has shifted in recent election cycles to big cities and suburbs, candidates are elevating gun control as part of their agenda.
Democrats could benefit on pushing gun control in making their appeal to suburban voters in key states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the center-left think tank The Third Way.
“Expanded background checks has been sort of the holy grail, but even if they get it, gun control is a strong issue for Democrats to push on,” Kessler said. “It is important to suburban women who are going to be important to beat Trump.”
Fifty-seven percent of Americans support banning the sale of “semi-automatic assault guns such as the AK-47 or the AR-15,” while 41% oppose it, according to a July Marist/NPR/PBS Poll. Support among suburbanites for an assault weapons ban is 62%.
The support for such legislation climbs even higher among suburban women, with a whopping 74% of women living in suburbs and small cities supporting such a ban, according to the Marist/NPR/PBS poll.
Democrats can point to several candidates who did well during the 2018 midterm elections while campaign for stronger gun laws.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won while pushing for universal background checks, banning bump stocks and prohibiting gun possession for those guilty of violent crimes.
Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia, who was motivated to run for Congress after her son was fatally shot, made gun control a centerpiece of her campaign, and won in a suburban Atlanta suburban district where Democrats hadn’t won since 1979.
In Orange County, Calif., Democrat Rep. Katie Porter unseated incumbent Mimi Walters in a once solid GOP district. Porter hammered at Walters for her A+ rating from the National Rifle Association.
“What has happened because of all of you is a change,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, another White House hopeful, told the crowd in Des Moines. “Change started, I think, after Parkland. You had built the groundwork for that change, and especially those of you had (faced) violence and lost loved ones. But after Parkland when those kids stood up and talked, kids all over the country watched it and they felt emboldened.”
Jane Choquette, a retired medical social worker from Des Moines, said she was moved to attend the forum in large part of the grief she was feeling over the killings in El Paso and Dayton. Choquette said she found the testimony from activists — many who lost love ones to gun violence — even more moving than what some of the candidates had to say.
“How do we do our part now?” said Choquette. “I doubt I’m ever going to change the devoted Trump supporter’s mind, but I think we can help expand and find new voters who are with us.”
Democrats highlight gun control plans
Even before El Paso and Dayton, several in the unwieldy field of Democratic hopefuls had highlighted gun control agendas.
Sen. Cory Booker had unveiled a 14-point plan gun violence reduction plan that included establishing a national gun licensing program. Sen. Kamala Harris has vowed take executive action to ban the importation of AR-15-style weapons into the U.S. if she’s elected president.
Biden has advocated for making gun manufacturers produce smart guns, firearms that would prohibit guns from being fired by people whose fingerprints are not registered for that specific weapon. He’s also touted the role he played as a senator in helping pass a 10-year ban on assault weapons in 1994.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Saturday unveiled a gun policy plan that she says aims to reduce firearm deaths by 80%. In addition to supporting expanded background checks and assault weapons ban, she wants to increase taxes on gun manufacturers by 20%, raise the minimum purchase age for a firearm to 21, make colleges and universities gun-free zones, and require that gun manufactures compensate victims of gun violence.
Warren said she will also push to end the use of filibuster, which requires 60 votes in the Senate to pass most legislation. The last big push to expand background checks and pass an assault weapons ban in 2013 — following the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut — was supported by a majority of senators but fell short of the 60-vote threshold.
“I want us to change how we think about gun safety in America,” Warren said. “It’s not just about passing four pieces of legislation over there or changing to regulations over here. It’s about reducing the deaths from gun violence. That’s what our goal has to be.”
Demographics on Dems’ side
Shifting demographics have also made a push for tougher gun laws less of a risky notion for Democratic contenders. Voters ages 18 to 23 are projected to account for one in 10 eligible voters for the 2020 electorate, according to the Pew Research Center.
Millennials, ages 18 to 38, broadly support Congress passing stricter gun regulations, according to the Marist/NPR/PBS poll. Ninety-two percent of millennials support an expansion of background checks and 54% back a ban on assault weapons.
Nick Pryor, 19, an Iowa City gun control activist, was among a new generation of voters who became passionate about the issue following the 2018 rampage by former student at a Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 dead.
He argues that the gun control movement is making progress, in part, because young activists are willing to talk about the issue in conservative areas of the country where voters have bristled at calls for stronger gun control.
Pryor said when he canvassed ahead of the 2018 midterms for Democratic candidates, he and fellow young gun control activists purposely spent much of their time outside of the liberal bubble of Iowa City, home of the state’s flagship University of Iowa.
“I’m not sure there were many Trump voters we talked to whose minds we changed,” said Pryor, who says he’s backing Booker in February’s Iowa caucuses. “But when you show up, you open the door to a conversation and maybe some people start realizing there is some common ground.”
Judy Schneider-Wallace, of Mukilteo, Wash., said many suburban moms like her have been inspired into activism by the Parkland generation.
She lost her husband in 2011, when he committed suicide. Schneider-Wallace knew her husband had been distressed by the loss of a job and was suffering depression. But with no waiting period to purchase a weapon, he was able to purchase the weapon on the same morning he killed himself.
After watching the students at Parkland speak out following the gun violence there, she decided she could no longer stand on the sidelines in the national conversation about gun laws. Schneider-Wallace has focused much of her efforts on advocating for red flag and wait time legislation.
“Somebody told me it’s the kids who are going to fix this,” she said. “I think that’s right.”