Opinion: Democrats' rare opportunity to win on an issue once viewed as political poison
Editor’s Note: Max Burns is a Democratic strategist, columnist and founder of Third Degree Strategies. Follow him on Twitter @themaxburns. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
For the second time in as many weeks, an American community is grieving after a mass shooting. Five shattered families in Louisville now join the six still mourning their loved ones in Nashville. As gun violence proliferates to the point that most American families have been affected by a gun-related incident, the political armor that once protected firearms might finally be cracking.
In past decades, Republicans and deep-pocketed pro-gun lobby groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) could bully Democrats into silence with their cash and clout. Now the political landscape has started to shift, altered no doubt by rising child gun deaths and the pervasiveness of mass shootings in our society.
The once-powerful NRA is mired in scandal following years of lavish spending (it’s also legally questionable, according to the New York attorney general, though the group has rejected that allegation). Nearly a million members have walked away since 2018. The NRA is now in a fight for survival amid lines of credit that appear to be maxed out and internal battles over the group’s future. Meanwhile, Democrats — once wary of mentioning gun control at all — have finally rediscovered their voice.
Democrats’ aggressive new tack on guns was on full display outside the House chamber earlier this month, where onlookers recorded Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York debating pro-gun Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky. That incident would have made Bowman a pariah in the Democratic Party of 2007, when then-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer punted on introducing new gun control legislation immediately after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech.
Hoyer appears in Bowman’s video, too. This time he’s offering his incensed colleague a supportive pat on the back. Times have certainly changed.
See heated gun control discussion between lawmakers in the halls of Congress
Democrats’ rising confidence in fighting for gun reform comes against a backdrop of tireless coalition-building from gun safety activists and community organizers across the country. Many are young people defined — not of their choice — by their relationship to gun violence. They talk about their entries into activism like combat veterans describing old tours of duty. Sandy Hook in 2012. Parkland in 2018. Uvalde in 2022. Now their advocacy organizations are helping to reshape public opinion on America’s relationship to guns.
Given the NRA’s reduced bankroll, “right now all the NRA can offer is a stamp of approval” to pro-gun Republican candidates, Susan Del Percio, an adviser to Republican candidates and the founder of Del Percio Strategies, told me. “Meanwhile groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and their partners have had a huge impact on state legislative races across the country. They have raised and spent a ton, and have people on the ground.”
Gun control activists got there by adopting an approach Republicans successfully deployed over the past four decades: Instead of focusing solely on federal reforms, gun safety advocates have invested heavily in influencing state and local policy. Everytown credits at least 51 pieces of state-level gun safety legislation passed in 2022 to their state-by-state strategy. During the same cycle, Moms Demand Action says it elected 125 gun reform candidates to office at every level of government.
After a full generation suffering under the ever-present threat of domestic mass murder, the American people might finally have reached a breaking point. Seventy-one percent of US adults want stricter gun laws, according to a recent AP-NORC poll. Over the summer, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that 59% of American adults think it’s more important to control gun violence than to protect gun rights (35%) — “its highest point in nearly a decade.” These figures have surely factored into Democrats new assertiveness on gun control.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer overcame state and national Republican opposition to pass sweeping gun safety reforms. Whitmer signed the first two parts of that package — a gun safe storage law and universal background checks — into law on Thursday with more expected to follow soon. Far from dooming her with voters, Whitmer and her tough line on guns has national media outlets now speculating that she may be positioning herself for an even bigger political job.
Washington state has been just as busy, with Democrats in the state legislature approving measures to hold the firearms industry accountable for gun violence and prohibit the manufacture and sale of assault weapons. In other cases, governors are leading the charge by resisting efforts to prop up the gun lobby. In Arizona, Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed a bill that would have effectively forced Arizona banks into doing business with gun manufacturers.
All of that activity has drawn Republican attention, not least because the GOP has yet to come up with a compelling counterargument to popular Democratic gun safety proposals. Even Republican voters part company with the GOP on the subject: An AP-NORC poll conducted last year found that nearly half of self-identified Republican voters supported passing tougher gun laws.
“Republicans look completely unreasonable when they won’t even discuss background checks, gun safety measures like storage or red flag laws,” Del Percio warned. “Republicans running in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, all big Second Amendment states, all lost. Republicans have to learn that you can be for the Second Amendment and also for background checks.”
And activists looking for momentum on Capitol Hill had best look elsewhere. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has said Congress won’t be considering any more gun legislation following the bipartisan passage of a limited gun safety bill last year.
But even with their heels dug in federally, some Republican governors are belatedly warming to once unimaginable gun reforms. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee responded to last week’s shooting in Nashville by calling on state lawmakers to toughen gun laws, including passing a red flag law that would empower the government to seize guns from dangerous individuals. That’s a sea change from just two years ago, when Lee personally thanked the NRA for its help ending all gun permitting in the state.
For progressive activists finally tasting victory, there is a growing fear that the Democratic Party will eventually get in its own way. Last month, Democrats close to President Joe Biden made clear that his 2024 campaign would steer away from thorny “culture war” issues, including abortion and guns. But a slate of strong gun safety executive actions publicized by the White House last month hints that Biden’s view may be evolving as Democratic state-level wins roll in.
As Democrats head into a bruising 2024, they should remember that the American people decisively support Democratic proposals for addressing the scourge of gun violence. Political watchers who criticized Democrats for talking too much about abortion during the 2022 midterm elections later ate crow after that once-dreaded culture war topic topped the list of voter concerns nationally.
Democrats’ abortion-driven ballot victories confirmed that social issues still have the power to reshape electoral patterns. That includes gun reform. Biden and the Democrats have the rare opportunity to build yet another winning coalition out of an issue once viewed as political poison. They need only look to their party’s hardworking governors for a roadmap to electoral success in 2024.