Gun reform a 2020 election issue as public attitudes shift
The kickoff Tuesday of a tour intended to promote Senate candidates who support enacting federal universal background checks illustrated the shifting public attitudes about gun control and how Republicans find themselves increasingly isolated by opposing commonsense reforms.
And it again showed the high national profile that Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut has in the gun-control movement. Murphy, a Democrat, was newly elected to the Senate, but still serving as the 5th District congressman, when in December 2012 the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in that district convinced Murphy to make addressing gun violence a priority.
Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords asked Murphy to join her in announcing the “Road to Universal Background Checks Tour.” Giffords is a victim of gun violence. She confronted a slow, difficult recovery from a severe brain injury after she was shot during an assassination attempt in January 2011 in Tucson, Arizona.
She founded the gun violence prevention organization “Giffords,” which is promoting the tour. Her husband, former Space Shuttle Commander Mark E. Kelly, is running for a seat in the U.S. Senate from Arizona.
Requiring that everyone undergo an FBI background check before purchasing a firearm would seem low-hanging fruit in the gun-control fight, far less controversial, for instance, than restoring the federal ban on the sale of semiautomatic rifles.
As things stand, person-to-person purchases, internet sales and gun-show sales are exempt from the federal background check requirement. Polls show public support for universal background checks is overwhelming. In kicking off the tour, Giffords pointed to new Public Policy Polling that found 60% of respondents answered that a candidate’s support for universal background checks would make them more likely to vote for her or him. Meanwhile, 64% answered they would never support a candidate who didn’t support “background checks on all gun sales.”
But the Republican-controlled Senate, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has blocked all attempts to introduce universal background check legislation. President Trump has at times referenced support for comprehensive background checks, only to pull back. The grip of the National Rifle Association, backed by its ability to politically attack any conservative who doesn’t toe the line, remains strong.
Democrats see an opening. Hoping to gain some local media attention, Giffords’ group plans to conduct “virtual gatherings” focused on states with Senate elections, beginning Tuesday in Michigan and ending Aug. 26 in Colorado.
Not long ago, a Democratic candidate running in places like South Carolina or Kansas would urge gun-control advocacy groups to stay away. The political risk of alienating voters in such pro-gun states would have been too great, even if a proposal was as sensible as background checks. But indicative of shifting attitudes, in 2020 candidates in those states are welcoming a Giffords visit, virtual though it may be.
In South Carolina, former state Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison is fighting a long-shot bid to unseat Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. He's happy to point out Graham has blocked universal background checks. The Giffords' tour hits that state Aug. 11.
In Kansas there is an open seat due to the pending retirement of Sen. Pat Roberts. In the Aug. 4 primary both parties will select their candidates from a large field. Republicans have held the seat for 100 years, but fear it may slip away. Giffords and the Democratic candidate welcoming her July 30, state senator Dr. Barbara Bollier, are betting the right stance on gun control can help make that happen.
The Giffords’ group also takes its campaign to two states considered critical to Senate control — Colorado, where former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper leads in the polls over freshman Republican Sen. Cory Gardner — and North Carolina. In North Carolina, Aug. 10 on the tour schedule, former state Sen. Cal Cunningham leads in the polls over Sen. Thom Tillis, another freshman Republican.
Giffords said the math is straight forward: elect a Democratic Senate and get universal background checks.
“This is the year we will elect a gun safety majority in the Senate,” she said.
Second Amendment advocates warn it won’t stop there and giving Democrats control would lead to significant erosion of gun rights. As much as Giffords and Murphy might want to keep the focus on universal background checks, gun supporters are sure to push back and broaden the debate.
One frequent knock on Democrats from Second Amendment proponents is that they focus on mass shootings, but ignore the ongoing gun violence in inner cities with tough gun laws, such as Chicago.
“We still have far too many shootings happening in my state, in Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport,” Murphy acknowledged at the kickoff. He is not up for reelection this year.
But Murphy argued that lax gun laws in some states, and the lack of universal background checks, help feed the inner-city violence with easier access to illegal guns.
Making sure every purchaser goes through a background check certainly wouldn’t make the situation worse.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.