2020 Dems seek gun ac­tivists’ en­ergy

Shoot­ings gal­va­nize sup­port for changes

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Aamer Mad­hani USA TO­DAY

DES MOINES — Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Michael Ben­net is pes­simistic GOP Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell will even al­low a vote on mean­ing­ful gun con­trol leg­is­la­tion when Congress re­turns from sum­mer re­cess.

But Ben­net, who rep­re­sents Colorado in the Sen­ate, urged gun rights ac­tivists over the week­end not to be frus­trated by po­ten­tial near-term set­backs. If they keep fight­ing, he as­sured them, they will be differ­ence-mak­ers who help Democrats beat Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, win con­trol of the Sen­ate and ul­ti­mately pass gun leg­is­la­tion that has some teeth.

In the af­ter­math of the shoot­ing ram­pages in El Paso, Texas, and Day­ton, Ohio, Democrats are look­ing to gal­va­nize the gun con­trol move­ment’s en­ergy and make

Amer­i­can grief over mass killings a cen­tral is­sue of the cam­paign for the White House. Chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics of where Demo­cratic votes come from is also im­pact­ing how politi­cians ap­proach gun safety.

Trump said last week he was in­ter­ested in “mean­ing­ful back­ground checks,” while mak­ing clear he plans to con­sult the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion on any mea­sures.

The pres­i­dent’s in­sis­tence on keep­ing the NRA in the fold has led some Demo­cratic contenders to con­clude that it’s un­likely a deal will be made on back­ground checks or any other con­se­quen­tial gun leg­is­la­tion.

Ad­vo­cacy groups Every­town for Gun Safety and Mom’s De­mand Ac­tion – both largely un­der­writ­ten by bil­lion­aire and for­mer New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – ar­ranged a last­minute pres­i­den­tial fo­rum in Iowa on Satur­day that brought hun­dreds of ac­tivists from across the coun­try.

Nearly all the can­di­dates al­ready were sched­uled to be in Iowa for the tra­di­tional cam­paign stops at the State Fair and the Des Moines Reg­is­ter Po­lit­i­cal Soap­box. Six­teen of the can­di­dates ad­dressed the ac­tivists in per­son and four oth­ers recorded mes­sages.

“If we had tried to put on an event like this in past elec­tions, I’m not sure even one can­di­date would’ve shown up,” Bloomberg told the ac­tivists, who were pre­dom­i­nantly women. “Their pres­ence here re­flects some­thing that’s very im­por­tant and very pow­er­ful.”

Top 2020 can­di­dates are in lock­step over ex­panded back­ground checks, reim­ple­ment­ing an as­sault weapons ban, and pass­ing red-flag laws to try to keep guns out of the hands of peo­ple who might be a dan­ger to them­selves or oth­ers. As a re­sult, the fo­rum was more about com­mis­er­at­ing than a sort­ing of can­di­dates on pol­icy differ­ences.

But to put the fo­cus on gun con­trol in Iowa – home to a large ru­ral vot­ing pop­u­la­tion, a seg­ment that polls show is more re­luc­tant to back tighter gun laws than the na­tional at large – shows Democrats be­lieve it’s a wise bet to lean heav­ily on gun con­trol ac­tivists to help them against Trump and down bal­lot.

Through­out the years, polls have con­sis­tently shown that a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers sup­port stronger gun con­trol poli­cies. Yet there long has been an in­ten­sity gap on the is­sue. Vot­ers his­tor­i­cally have ranked the econ­omy, im­mi­gra­tion, en­vi­ron­ment and for­eign pol­icy as higher pri­or­i­ties.

Still, as the Demo­cratic Party’s base has shifted in re­cent elec­tion cy­cles to big cities and sub­urbs, can­di­dates are el­e­vat­ing gun con­trol as part of their agenda.

Democrats could benefit on push­ing gun con­trol in mak­ing their ap­peal to sub­ur­ban vot­ers in key states such as Florida, Michi­gan, Ohio, Penn­syl­va­nia and Wis­con­sin, said Jim Kessler, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent for pol­icy at the cen­ter-left think tank The Third Way.

“Ex­panded back­ground checks has been sort of the holy grail, but even if they get it, gun con­trol is a strong is­sue for Democrats to push on,” he said. “It is im­por­tant to sub­ur­ban women who are go­ing to be im­por­tant to beat Trump.”

Fifty-seven per­cent of Amer­i­cans sup­port ban­ning the sale of “semi-au­to­matic as­sault guns such as the AK-47 or the AR-15,” while 41% op­pose it, ac­cord­ing to a July Marist/NPR/PBS poll. Sup­port among sub­ur­ban­ites for an as­sault weapons ban is 62%.

The sup­port climbs even higher among sub­ur­ban women, with 74% of women liv­ing in sub­urbs and small cities sup­port­ing such a ban, ac­cord­ing to the Marist/NPR/PBS poll.

Shift­ing de­mo­graph­ics also have made a push for tougher gun laws less of a risky no­tion for Demo­cratic contenders. Peo­ple ages 18 to 23 are pro­jected to ac­count for one in 10 el­i­gi­ble vot­ers for the 2020 elec­torate, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter.

Mil­len­ni­als, ages 18 to 38, broadly sup­port Congress pass­ing stricter gun reg­u­la­tions, ac­cord­ing to the poll. Ninety-two per­cent of mil­len­ni­als sup­port an ex­pan­sion of back­ground checks and 54% back a ban on as­sault weapons.

Nick Pryor, 19, of Iowa City, was among a gen­er­a­tion of vot­ers who be­came pas­sion­ate about gun con­trol fol­low­ing the 2018 Park­land ram­page. He says the move­ment is mak­ing progress, in part be­cause young ac­tivists are will­ing to talk about the is­sue in con­ser­va­tive ar­eas of the U.S. where vot­ers have bris­tled at calls for stronger gun laws.

Pryor said when he can­vassed for Demo­cratic can­di­date be­fore the 2018 midterms, he and other ac­tivists pur­posely spent much of their time out­side of the lib­eral bub­ble of Iowa City.

“I’m not sure there were many Trump vot­ers we talked to whose minds we changed,” he said. “But when you show up, you open the door to a con­ver­sa­tion and maybe some peo­ple start re­al­iz­ing there is some com­mon ground.”

BRYON HOULGRAVE/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Hun­dreds at­tend the Pres­i­den­tial Gun Sense Fo­rum Satur­day in Iowa.

SAM UPSHAW JR./USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Kirsten Mack, cen­ter, at­tends a rally for gun con­trol with her daugh­ters, Ani, 17, and Lilly, 19, and their friend Mary Grothaus, 19, on Fri­day out­side the Muham­mad Ali Cen­ter in Louisville, Ky.

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