While most Republicans have opposed expanding background checks and banning assault-rifles, GOP Senator Lindsey Graham said Monday he cut a deal with Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal on “red flag” legislation to assist and encourage states to keep guns away from people who are found to pose an imminent risk of violence. Many Democrats said that wasn’t enough and called for a renewal of the assault-weapons ban and universal background checks, among other measures.

The 2018 election reflected a changing landscape on guns. Republicans were swept out of the House majority after losing suburban bastions where they were once dominant — in places like Orange County, California, and around Dallas and Houston in Texas. Voters in 2018 favoured stricter gun control by a margin of 22 percentage points, and those who did backed Democrats by a margin of 76 per cent to 22 per cent, according to exit polls. Gun policy ranked as the No. 4 concern, and voters who cited it as their top issue voted for Democrats by a margin of 70 per cent to 29 per cent.

And the mood has changed since 2016.

The gun issue propelled Trump in key states like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania among voters who opposed Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton’s support for gun control, said Republican strategist Brad Todd, whose firm polled on the issue. Todd said swing voters may still “see upsides and downsides to both approaches” on gun policy.

There have been 255 mass shootings so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which counts incidents where at least four people were shot or killed, not including the shooter. With the presidential election 15 months away, it’s unclear just how salient the issue of guns will be in shaping voter behaviour.

Embedded Image
Lindsey Graham. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

GOP ‘Takes a Hit’

The renewed debate captures a dilemma for Trump as he revs up his re-election campaign with appeals to rural Americans steeped in a rich gun culture. But he risks alienating upper-income suburbanites, who can make or break his prospects, if he’s seen as unwilling to take action to stop frequent mass shootings.

All of the major Democratic candidates are running on gun control measures, including tougher background checks and banning assault weapons, setting up a stark contrast with Trump.

“Every time the country experiences a tragedy of this nature the Republican brand takes a hit,” said Carlos Curbelo, a Republican former congressman who lost his suburban Miami-area district to a Democrat in 2018. “Because many, many Americans perceive that Republicans are unwilling to act on gun reform, due to the influence of the NRA and other organizations.”

“Certainly in swing suburban districts there is broad support for” policies like universal background checks and 72-hour waiting periods, Curbelo said. “A lot of voters, especially young voters, have lost their patience with this issue.”

A Marist poll last month, commissioned by NPR and PBS, found that 57 per cent of American adults support banning “the sale of semi-automatic assault guns such as the AK-47 or the AR-15,” while 41 per cent oppose it. Support for such bans was 62 per cent among suburbanites, 74 per cent among women in the suburbs and small cities, and 65 per cent among white college graduates.

But the survey found broad opposition to banning semi-automatic assault weapons among the core elements of Trump’s coalition — 67 per cent among Republicans, 67 per cent among conservatives, 65 per cent among white men without college degrees, and 51 per cent among rural Americans.

Gun Voters

The party’s longstanding opposition to gun control is a product of party leaders working to consolidate single-issue firearm owners voters who reliably turn out in elections and tend to view any new restrictions as a threat to their Second Amendment rights.

It explains why most Republicans oppose even modest measures like universal background checks, which received 89 per cent national support in the Marist poll, including large majorities across all demographic and party affiliations. The NRA opposes that proposal, too.

“The NRA is committed to the safe and lawful use of firearms by those exercising their Second Amendment freedoms,” the NRA said in a statement Sunday, adding that it “will not participate in the politicizing of these tragedies” but will work to pursue practical solutions.

Earlier this year, eight House Republicans from suburban or competitive districts voted with Democrats to pass a bill that would impose background checks on buyers for gun sales considered private, which are not currently required by federal law.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has refused to consider the bill, and Trump has threatened to veto it.

In a statement Monday, Trump denounced the “twisted” killers over the weekend and called for new “red flag” laws to keep firearms away from people found to be dangerous. He blamed the internet, social media and violent video games for pushing people toward violence, though he suggested easy access to guns wasn’t the problem.

“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” he said.

Gun politics have shifted since President Barack Obama avoided the issue in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns for fear that it was a political loser. During Obama’s first term, the country was evenly divided on whether gun laws should be made stricter or stay the same, according to Gallup. By October 2018, support for stricter firearm laws outnumbered support for maintaining them by 31 points.

Background Checks

The shift was propelled by the Newtown elementary school massacre in December 2012, after which Senate Democratic leaders attempted to pass a bipartisan bill to require universal background checks, but were thwarted by a coalition of mostly Republicans.

Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, the Republican co-author of the bill, said Monday he spoke with Trump and urged him to support the measure, adding that the president expressed openness to work on background check legislation.

Toomey said he hoped that “the accumulated pain from so many of these horrific experiences will be motivation to do something.”

“I hope we’re at a moment where the atmosphere has changed,” Toomey told reporters.

Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, signaled openness to new gun laws on Sunday and said he wants to be a “constructive voice” in the debate.

“These issues involve constitutional rights and deeply held beliefs – but that is not an excuse to shy away from a serious, fact-based, and thorough national discussion which will potentially lead to remedial legislation,” he said.

Michael Bloomberg, owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, founded and helps fund Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control measures.