For all of the emotion and energy surrounding the gun debate nationally, Republicans are increasingly worried that its political implications matter most with a small but pivotal crop of candidates who are already deeply vulnerable: moderate Republicans from suburbia.
Voters in suburban enclaves have been severely shaken by last month’s deadly mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida —and they are pressing candidates from some of the most competitive districts in the country to act, or risk backlash as the 2018 midterms cycle intensifies.
These Republicans know that for them, the issue is not going away even as the GOP-held Senate declines to turn to gun legislation this week and rank-and-file Republicans express resistance to sweeping new gun laws.
“My sense is, there’s a heightened awareness, and it’s going to be sustained,” said Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican who represents a suburban Philadelphia district that backed Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“Whereas in the past, a tragedy occurs, two weeks later things settle and then we’re talking about Trump tweets, the government shutdown, any number of things which take away from the singular focus on this issue,” he said, “it remains to be seen, but my sense is, the issue is going to remain as part of a couple of issues that voters, particularly middle-of-the-road voters, are going to look at to see where you stand and what you’re willing to do.”
For GOP lawmakers who both depend on those “middle-of-the-road” voters and cannot afford to lose the conservative base, the stakes couldn’t be higher, or the environment more charged. Democrats, who are ultra-energized, need to win 24 districts to take back the House of Representatives. There are 23 Republican-held seats, many of them moderate and suburban, that Clinton won last cycle. Those districts are often home to center-right voters who typically back Republicans and appreciate the GOP-led tax reform measure, but don’t always have the same deep cultural affinity for hunting and owning guns that Republican voters from more rural areas do.
There is growing concern among moderate members and GOP strategists that if substantive congressional efforts to curb gun violence fail yet again, those suburban voters will have one more reason to break with a national party that has already given them pause in the Trump era.
“They see what happened in Sandy Hook, they see what happened in Parkland, and their immediate conclusion is, this could happen in my own school where I send my kids every day while I’m at work,” said one GOP strategist involved in the midterms, who was granted anonymity in order to candidly assess the Republican Party's challenges, and added that these voters are looking for “multi-part solutions.” “It’s easy for them to understand why people should be allowed to own guns for self-defense and recreational purposes. It’s really hard to understand why everyone should have a weapon of war at their disposal at any moment.”
“They want something done,” the source continued, “and it just so happens the traditional Democratic talking points dovetail perfectly with what these voters are looking for.”
Matt Borges, the former chairman of the Ohio GOP, lives in a more liberal area of suburban Columbus. “Oh God yes,” he replied, when asked whether he was hearing more interest in addressing gun violence.
“It’s getting suburban moms, suburban families really into this discussion in a way I have personally never seen before,” he said, detailing fights at local schools over whether students could participate in gun control-related walk-outs. “These no longer seem like isolated incidents. Everyone looks around and says, ‘What would we do if it happens here?’ And [there is] just the sheer sense of panic.”
Borges ticked through the list of mass shootings that have unfolded in recent years, from the shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, to the nightclub shooting in Orlando to the one at a concert in Las Vegas.
“Every time…there’s some discussion about what to do, then nothing ever happens, no one ever does anything,” he said. “So at some point in time you don’t want to feel like a sitting duck, you want to say, here at least are the things we’re doing to try to address this issue.”
The answer is not necessarily more gun control—but that should be part of the conversation, he said, along with specifics on how to secure schools. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican considering a 2020 presidential bid, has put forward a wide-ranging series of proposals to curb gun violence including tighter background check enforcement and supporting any federally approved ban on bump stocks, devices that allow guns to fire more rapidly.
Other Republican governors have been willing to push gun control measures, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who is considered likely to run for Senate, who supports raising the age for firearm purchases from 18 to 21.
“What I think voters, constituents, are saying is, ‘Tell us what your plan actually is, what are you doing to make this situation different?’” said Borges, who continues to advise candidates. “I do think there needs to be some discussion about guns. That doesn’t mean that’s the solution, it means that’s a discussion that can’t just be shut down.”
But in fact, in more conservative corners of the country—including many congressional districts—there is little interest in turning to a discussion about tightening gun access. Conservative activists note that local authorities in Florida were repeatedly made aware of community concerns about the person who would eventually become the Parkland shooter—and that didn’t stop him. They question how changing gun regulations for law-abiding citizens would have prevented that tragedy.
“Before you go anywhere close to eroding those constitutional rights, we need to make sure the messes that have been made by government from the local level on up are cleaned up first,” warned JoAnn Fleming, a prominent conservative activist from Texas.
Asked about the idea of expanded background checks, North Carolina GOP executive director Dallas Woodhouse replied, “I think all of those things are up for public debate…I will say this: What good would that have done in this case? This guy had multiple, multiple interactions with the police, the FBI…they didn’t do anything. There’s absolutely no simple answers, no law that can be passed to guarantee these things don’t happen.”
Resistance to embracing more laws, when Second Amendment activists feel the ones on the books just need better enforcement, complicates moderate GOP efforts to embrace more comprehensive gun legislation amid fears of pushback from the right.
But certainly, Democrats have their own tightrope to walk on this issue. The most vulnerable Senate Democrats up for reelection this year come from red states that Trump won in 2016, a dynamic that hampers their ability to push for the kind of expansive gun control measures that the highly motivated progressive base would like to see.
“It’s a tragic moment, a sensitive issue, one fraught with emotion that divides people, and one side could overplay their hand on this,” said Tucker Martin, a communications consultant with a background in GOP politics. “Who gets the messaging right? Who gets the issue right? Who comes up with the best framing for it? There’s a real chance Democrats overplay their hand on this, and this rebounds badly against them in key states that they need.”
In the near term, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are emphasizing tougher background checks—a position with bipartisan support, though one that doesn’t go far enough for many liberal activists.
The debate in Congress is fluid, for the moment. Last week, Trump publicly indicated support for a wide range of gun control measures, though he struck a more conservative tone on Twitter the next day.
But a number of vulnerable Republicans are loudly pressing the need for some action.
“It’s very clear that an overwhelming majority of Americans want reasonable gun restrictions, and I agree we do not want to in any way diminish Second Amendment rights for responsible gun owners, but we want to do more to make sure those who would be irresponsible gun owners, mass murderers, do not have access to the weapons,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican from a deeply competitive Miami-area district, in a recent conversation with reporters.
Others, like Rep. Brian Mast, also of South Florida, have pushed publicly for an assault weapons ban.
“This time,” Curbelo added, “has been different already.”
McClatchy correspondent Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.