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Democratic Candidates Should Be Bolder on Gun Control, Poll Finds

“The center has shifted on this issue,” gun control advocate says

Students march to the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue to call on Congress to act on gun violence prevention during a national walkout on April 20 to mark the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo) 

Gun control has been a third rail of Democratic campaigns, but a new poll suggests that Democratic candidates should embrace a bolder approach to restrictions on guns, even in general elections.

Up to this point, Democrats have been decidedly defensive on guns. The most famous instances of Democratic candidates using guns in television ads include West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III shooting the so-called cap-and-trade bill, former Georgia Rep. John Barrow talking about his granddaddy’s pistol and Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander assembling a rifle blindfolded. The ads were meant to reassure voters that Democrats didn’t want to take away their guns.

In the wake of a steady stream of mass shootings, some Democratic candidates are talking more openly about guns, but to base voters in the context of competitive Democratic primares.

In Arizona’s 2nd District, physician Matt Heinz is attacking former 1st District Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick for her past position on guns and past “A”rating from the National Rifle Association. Kirkpatrick responded with an ad that proposed an assault weapons ban and call for universal background checks, with support from former Rep. Ron Barber (a mass shooting survivor). 

Watch: Gun Control Front and Center in Remaining Democratic Primaries

Other mentions of guns in Democratic primaries have been void of policy specifics.

Pediatrician Kim Schrier in Washington’s 8th District and high-school teacher Tom Niermann in Kansas’ 3rd District brought up the gun issue in recent ads, but fell back to “common sense gun ownership laws” and “common sense gun reform.” Even Lucy McBath, a spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety and the Democratic nominee in Georgia’s 6th District, talked more broadly about “common sense solutions” to fixing Washington in her ads, which only mentioned gun violence in passing even though her 17-year-old son was shot and killed in a car at a gas station.

“We’re trying to redefine what commonsense solutions really means,” said Igor Volsky, director of Guns Down, which he founded in 2016 after the shooting at an Orlando nightclub. “Democrats need to wake up to the reality that the center has shifted on this issue.”

“If they want to meet their voters, stop shooting bills and call for bold action,” he added.

Guns Down and Center for American Progress commissioned a national poll of 1,000 registered voters via an online web panel, conducted June 12-16 by Democratic pollster Margie Omero of GBA Strategies, to test the effectiveness of various messages on the gun issue.

I’m normally reluctant to write about issue polls because they often fail to put into context how voters prioritize that particular issue when they are making an electoral decision. For example, people have opinions on the environment, but it’s not often a top issue when they vote.

But this poll is a little different.

It modeled three different base Democratic messages against a standard conservative message. The first base message talked about the economy, education and health care. The second base message included those same issues along with a “moderate” gun message, including protecting the Second Amendment and universal background checks, and “keeping guns out of dangerous hands.” The third base message included the same initial issues along with a more progressive gun message that combined a commitment to an assault weapons ban with a call for fewer guns and making them harder to get.

The first option prevailed over a conservative candidate message by 13 points, 50 percent to 37 percent. The second message won by a wider 17-point margin. The third message, which included the more progressive position on guns, triumphed by the widest margin, 22 points. None of the ballot tests included party affiliation for the candidates.

The sample makeup was 47 percent Democrats, 38 percent Republicans, and 15 percent independents. But the bigger takeaway is who was influenced.

The third message resonated particularly among women, who preferred it by more than 20 points compared to the other two. More specifically, the stronger gun language did much better among Democratic and independent women.

“With women such an important target this cycle, candidates of any party should take these findings to heart,” said Omero, who wrote about the gender gap on gun laws more than five years ago.

While the third message was the least popular of the three among men, the second message was still more compelling than one with no mention of guns.

Slicing the respondents a different way, liberal and progressive Democrats supported all three of the messages similarly. But there was a significant uptick among moderate to conservative Democrats for the third message compared to the first two messages, seemingly defying conventional wisdom.

In addition, 31 percent of respondents lived in gun-owning households and 55 percent of those voters believed guns should be harder to get, according to Omero, and all proposals mentioned in the survey received majority support.

“Politicians are generally risk averse, particularly on policies that are quickly changing,” Volsky explained, citing same-sex marriage as an example. “Opinion changed quickly but it took politicians a long time to get there.”

“For many voters — particularly Republicans and men — having any sort of message about stronger gun laws is more compelling than avoiding the topic altogether,” Omero said.

“We know what the status quo gets us,” Volsky said.

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