In this final stretch to Election Day, something odd is happening: Democrats are aggressively arguing for stronger gun controls, even in battleground districts.
From Sean Casten in suburban Chicago to Linda Coleman in suburban Raleigh, Democrats have sensed a significant shift in sentiment among voters after a series of deadly mass shooting, but particularly after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
“If you are a member of a well-regulated militia, I have no problem with you having access to muskets,” Casten said at a gun-control forum organized by his campaign last week. “Beyond that, I have some concerns.”
Mass shootings aren’t new, but Democrats say the party’s more aggressive posture is. And it’s being driven by candidates such as Casten who openly and unapologetically call for not just expanding background checks on the sale of firearms but also for an outright ban on assault rifles.
Even some Republicans, including Casten’s opponent, acknowledge the shift is real.
“The impact of the school violence is cumulative, and those cumulative stories are influencing the debate significantly,” Roskam said in an interview.
How much it has shifted — and whether that sentiment change lasts — is hard to determine, especially for a movement that has yet to have any tangible legislative success at the federal level. And Democrats acknowledge that whatever success they have on Election Day, little of it will be attributable to their new aggression on gun control. (Democrats are running campaigns heavily focused instead on issues such as health care and taxes.)
But if Democrats do win dozens of House races, they’ll send to Congress a wave of men and women unafraid to embrace aggressive gun-control policies — even many who represent typically red districts.
“We don’t want to take away people’s recreational activities, hunting and protection, those kinds of things,” said Coleman, the Democratic nominee in North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District. “But again, it all goes back to safety. We need safe gun laws in this country, period.”
President Donald Trump won the 2nd District by nearly 10 percentage points in 2016, and Coleman is locked in an unexpectedly competitive race against GOP Rep. George Holding.
But in an interview, the Democrat said she too would back an assault weapons ban.
Democrats point to a plethora of other evidence that the politics of gun-control has shifted: A Reuters report found that 38 out of more than 50 top Democratic candidates had included a gun-control policy on their websites, a significant increase from the previous election. Open Secrets reported last week that gun-control groups have outspent the NRA this election, a reversal from previous years.
And even the ads from gun-control groups are more aggressive: Giffords PAC, the group founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt, and her husband, Mark Kelly, ran a TV ad against Virginia GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock that featured Giffords speaking directly to the camera, the first time the group has run such an ad.
“I don’t remember an election where gun-safety advocates were as present and aggressive as this one,” said Democratic Rep. Jim Himes, who lives 20 miles from Connecticut elementary school where 27 people, including many children, were shot and killed in 2012. Himes participated in the gun-control forum hosted by Casten, saying that his potential colleague’s race was a referendum on gun-control politics in the suburbs.
Gun-control advocates have argued for a change in politics before, in the aftermath of other mass shootings such as Sandy Hook. This time is different, thanks in part to the high-profile advocacy of the Parkland students, who have traveled the country in support of tighter restrictions on firearms.
The public, especially in the suburbs, has shifted from preferring gun-control measures to demanding them, party pollsters say.
“What you’d hear before from middle-of-the-road people is, ‘Well, I’m for background checks, but if a criminal wants to get a gun, they’ll get a gun,’” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who does work for Giffords.
“Now it’s past that to, well, we have to do something.”
Of course, some Democrats are still cautious about gun politics. At the Casten forum, in front of about two dozen people, Himes made a point of reminding the audience that they still needed to be careful with how they talk about their issue.
“My wife gets pretty fired up about this stuff, and I always have to encourage her that what we’re trying to do here is persuade,” Himes said. “And therefore if the conversation starts with, that’s ridiculous, or you’re stupid, or police officers don’t hit their intended target 88 percent of the time, you’re having a conversation that is increasing the antagonism.”
Himes said that for many people, especially in rural areas, hunting is an important part of life, where gun-control conversations will not be well-received if handled incorrectly.
“If a guy like me, the so-called coastal elite, forgets about that, we’re playing right into the hands of the NRA,” the congressman said. “Just having those conversations in an open and generous way is a huge win against the NRA.”
Indeed, in many Senate races playing out across an array of deep red states this year, Democratic candidates have been more circumspect. And Republicans note that for all the talk of gun control among House candidates, few if any have put the issue into TV ads, widely considered the most important form of communication during an election.
“I’m not seeing tv ads on gun control,” said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster. “When they do that, that’s when they’ve said they’re no longer afraid this issue.”
Bolger said like a lot of issues this polarizing election, he thinks gun control might be becoming more favorable to Democrats in left-leaning areas while less favorable in right-leaning ones. But he’s not sure that in the long term, the politics will be quite as favorable to Democrats.
One major looming test: What happens if Democrats gain control of the House or Senate and begin passing legislation to restrict access to firearms?
It’s something Casten is vowing to do, including issuing a ban on the sale of assault rifles. Asked during an interview if he was worried about the politics of such legislation, the candidate said the politics were beside the point.
“I don’t fundamentally care about the politics because if you are in a position of power, and you’re waiting for people to you what to do in polls, don’t call yourself a leader,” Casten said. “Your job is to lead public opinion, not to sit around and let it lead you.