Will Democrats Run on Gun Control in 2020?
As more and more people feel the threat of gun violence looming over their daily routines, Americans of all political persuasions are looking for answers, said Angela Kuefler, the senior vice president of research at the Global Strategy Group, who advises Democratic candidates on issues related to guns and gun violence. “It used to be you asked people what caused gun violence, people would say bad parenting and violent video games,” Kuefler told me. “They don’t say that anymore—they say it’s too easy for anyone to get a gun.”
According to a Quinnipiac University poll from late August, some 93 percent of Americans now support requiring background checks for every gun purchase; 82 percent support requiring a license to purchase a firearm; and 80 percent are in favor of so-called red-flag laws, which would allow family members or law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily remove guns from people who are seen to be a risk to themselves or others.
The House has already passed legislation requiring background checks for all gun purchasers, and this week, House Democrats plan to advance a bill that would urge states to pass red-flag laws and other gun-control measures. So far this year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has declined to take up any House-passed bills related to gun control. And the president, who at first said he supported the implementation of universal background checks following the shootings in El Paso and Dayton last month, sidelined the idea after a phone call with Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association.
That inaction isn’t new: Gun-control advocates have long struggled to shift the cultural and political dynamics that have historically made gun control so divisive. Gun ownership, for many Americans, is an essential facet of their identity. But “when things begin to shift to [the point where] your children come home and talk about it,” Sena said, “that has the potential to be a real tipping point.”
Democratic strategists say that congressional inertia and the influence of the NRA underscore another way health care and gun violence are analogous political issues: They give Democratic candidates clear antagonists.
In 2018, the party line was that “Republicans weren’t doing anything on health care because they were bought by prescription-drug companies,” Kuefler said. “You had an enemy,” she added—someone to villainize, to rally against. Amid the fear and frustration that many Americans feel about gun violence, Democrats can try to point to real political actors they argue are most responsible. The party has long railed against the NRA, but it may be unusually well positioned next year to convince voters to listen.
“Democrats have answers. I don’t necessarily buy all of them, but the Democrats have answers on this issue,” Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor who had previously raised concerns about the GOP’s ties to the NRA, told me. “The whole crux of this election is who wins suburban, educated women,” he added. And by not endorsing gun-control policies that are broadly popular, “the Republican Party runs the risk of becoming a fringe party in the suburbs like it is in some urban areas.”