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Gun control could be a defining issue for Democrats on the 2020 campaign trail

Key Points
  • Since the Valentine's Day massacre that killed 17 at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Democrats in even the reddest of districts have made gun control a winning issue on the campaign trail.
  • Colleen Barry, professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health expects gun policy to continue to be an important issue in the 2020 election.
  • Pressure is building on Republicans to respond, pushing President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to at least say they are open to some form of gun control legislation.
Abigail Spanberger, Democratic Representative from Virginia
Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Advocating for strict gun control measures was once considered the kiss of death for Democratic candidates hoping to win congressional elections in swing districts.

The National Rifle Association would pile money into an opponent's campaign and run attack ads in its fight to preserve second amendment rights at all costs, usually winning the fight.

But that landscape is changing fast. Since the Valentine's Day massacre that killed 17 at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Democrats in even the reddest of districts have made gun control a winning issue on the campaign trail.

The recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio will only "accelerate" that shift, said Colleen Barry, professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"You will see more gun regulation related political advertising in this election cycle than we have seen in the past," Barry said.

Two House Democrats, Reps. Jason Crow, D-Colo., and Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., were among the many gun control advocates who won against Republican incumbents in the 2018 midterm elections. Their message resonated with voters on both sides of the aisle.

Focusing on gun regulation and gun safety has become a "winning strategy" that appeals to both Democratic and Republican voters, Barry said. She expects gun policy to continue to be an important issue in the 2020 election.

Framing the issue

Democrats running in swing districts still need to frame the issue in ways that appeal to both parties and independents.

Spangerger told CNBC her approach to talking about guns is emphasizing that it's not a "gun control agenda" but a "gun violence prevention agenda."

"I think that sometimes we can talk past each other, and I think it's incredibly important that those who carry gunsbe part of that conversation," Spanberger said. "When we talk about background checks, we're not talking about changing the standard, but we're talking about applying the standard."

Spanberger's background as a former CIA agent elevates her authority when it comes to talking about gun safety. She advocates for background checks and "red flag" laws, that would allow the courts to confiscate weapons from individuals considered a danger to themselves or others.

Crow, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, also uses his knowledge of firearms to his advantage when communicating with his constituents. He supports universal background checks and restrictions on high-capacity ammunition magazines and military-style assault weapons.

"This is an issue that I believe the tide has turned on," Crow said. "People should run on it, not just Democrats but across the spectrum, even if they are Republicans, if they have the courage to stand up and serve justice to an issue because it's one that overwhelmingly Americans support."

Since the Parkland shooting, gun control advocacy groups have gathered strength. March for Our Lives, founded by several Parkland survivors, holds massive demonstrations across the nation calling for gun regulations, registers young voters and encourages youth activism.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit founded by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, helped to neutralize the NRA's power during the 2018 midterms by funding a number of candidates including Reps. Spanberger and Crow.

NRA continues the fight

The NRA continues to fight back. "Anti-gun legislation politicians are all too eager to push legislation that only infringes on the rights of law-abiding gun owners," NRA spokesperson Catherine Mortensen said in a statement. She said House Democrats' push for gun control legislation "won't make anyone safer."

Even so a Quinnipiac poll from 2019 shows 94% of Americans support universal background checks. A recent Morning Consult poll showed that most Republican voters support an assault weapons ban, including 64% GOP women.

As public opinion on gun control shifts, the NRA's power and influence is waning. Just this week, a fourth member of the NRA's Board of Directors resigned after leaked documents showed NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre misused member dues on designer clothes and travel accommodations.

Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at conservative think tank, American Enterprise Institute, said problems at the NRA may be giving Democrats' "great incentive" to move ahead.

David Chipman is a former ATF agent and senior policy advisor for Gifford's Law Center, a nonprofit founded by former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords who was shot at a public event in a shopping center parking lot.

He said veterans like Crow and federal agents like Spanberger have given the Democratic party a better platform for discussing the topic of gun control.

"Years ago, it was more risky to stand up," Chipman said. "But now that more … people who know about guns are talking about this issue, it's created a safe place for others to get together and talk about it in a way they haven't before."

Pressure on GOP builds

House Democrats continue to push the Senate Republican leadership to act on gun safety legislation before the end of the current recess on Sept. 9. Some House Democrats are coming back to Washington on Sept. 4 to take up the issue.

The 25 Democratic presidential candidates all support universal background checks and half of them support a ban on assault weapons, according to a politico analysis.

Pressure is building on Republicans to respond, pushing President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to at least say they are open to some form of gun control legislation.

"We're going to have these bipartisan discussions, and when we get back hopefully be able to come together and actually pass something," McConnell told a Kentucky radio station last week, according to politico.

"I am convinced Mitch wants to do something," Trump told reporters Tuesday. "I've spoken to Mitch McConnell - he's a good man. He wants to do something."