2020 Dems seek gun activists’ energy
Shootings galvanize support for changes
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 fighting, he assured them, they will be difference-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 differences.
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 benefit 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.”
Hundreds attend the Presidential Gun Sense Forum Saturday in Iowa.
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.