Politics

Are the Suburbs Getting More Progressive on Guns? Moms Demand Action Bets Yes

Gun control group found winning candidates within its own ranks

Rep.-elect Lucy McBath, D-Ga., was previously a national spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Amid a debate within the Democratic Party about whether progressive ideas can sway voters in suburbia, candidates affiliated with an advocacy group that campaigns against gun violence sought — and won — elected office even in historically conservative suburban districts.

Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America appealed to suburban women on overhauling gun laws amid a rash of mass shootings in recent years, including the one in Parkland, Florida, in February. 

The organization advocates so-called red-flag laws and banning bump stocks and assault weapons, and it opposes allowing guns on college campuses. It plans to achieve those policy aims by campaigning aggressively in future election cycles.

“Exit polling is still being parsed, but one thing is clear: In an election where women voters were crucial in swaying the balance of power, gun violence prevention was a priority issue for women from all walks of life,” the group’s founder, Shannon Watts, wrote about the midterm elections. “Gun violence isn’t a right-or-left issue — it’s a life-or-death issue.”

Putting that theory to practice, Moms Demand Action launched a formal training program last year for volunteers interested in running for office — an ambitious new stage for the six-year-old organization. It’s just one sign of the group’s growing influence: Everytown for Gun Safety, its parent organization, and Giffords PAC, another gun control group, outspent the National Rifle Association this midterm cycle.

The groups say views on guns in America’s suburbs have altered in a way that is unfavorable to the guns rights movement, especially among women. And that shift coincides with gun rights groups becoming increasingly aligned with the Republican Party.

Unseating comfortable incumbents

In all, volunteer leaders with Moms Demand Action won at least 16 elected offices across the country last month, according to the group, unseating some suburban incumbents who had never been challenged before. The winners include Democratic Rep.-elect Lucy McBath, a onetime national spokesperson for the group, who captured a House seat in Georgia once held by Newt Gingrich

Anecdotal evidence on Election Day complemented earlier polling by EveryTown/Hart Research Associates that showed 75 percent of women of color and 72 percent of suburban women want to hear more from candidates about gun violence. The poll also found suburban women backing Democrats over Republicans on gun policy by a 26-point margin.

“Suburban voters made gun safety a top issue, and until something is done to stem the tide of gun violence, it’s safe to say their focus on the issue will remain,” Katie Peters, communications director for Giffords PAC, wrote on the group’s website after the election.

But political scientists are still parsing how the politics around guns are changing. They caution that the issue’s salience reaches beyond single-issue voters.

“The broader gun culture — one that values individualism, independence, and ideas on public safety — motivates gun owners to vote for a variety of reasons,” said Abigail Vegter, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Kansas who recently presented research on the political participation of gun rights voters at the annual conference of the American Political Science Association.

“This makes them a tough bloc to go up against as our research suggests that they turn out to vote even when guns are not a salient issue in a given election,” Vegter continued. She also pointed to disappointing results for Democratic candidates in Florida last month, where the March for Our Lives after the Parkland shooting pushed the issue of guns to the forefront.  

Still, Moms Demand Action undoubtably changed how political scientists and pundits talk about guns when McBath scored a significant victory over Republican Karen Handel in the affluent but rapidly changing suburbs of Atlanta. It was a stinging upset for the GOP in a district where it had defeated an extremely well-funded challenger just 15 months earlier.

A painful anniversary

The day after Thanksgiving marked a painful anniversary for McBath: Six years have passed since her son Jordan Davis was shot to death.

In 2012, a 45-year-old white man fired at the black teenager and his friends as they sat in a parked car at a Florida gas station after berating them about the volume of the rap music they were listening to.

“One of the most effective ways to inform and persuade people is by telling them about your first-person experience,” McBath wrote at the launch of her campaign. “It’s a credential I wish upon no one, but I’ve found solace and purpose through my fight.”

Moms Demand Action has found other candidates in its ranks of volunteers whose lives were suddenly defined by gun-related tragedies.

Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was murdered at the Aurora, Colorado, theater massacre in 2012, won a state House seat in suburban Denver, ousting the chamber’s second-highest-ranking Republican. He said speaking plainly about his tragedy made him an effective campaigner.

“It could be as simple as we all love our kids, and they look at me and see that only through the grace of God, it’s not them. I hope they see part of themselves in me,” said Sullivan, who described himself as a “labor guy” who also campaigned on increasing vocational training.

Like McBath, Sullivan said advocating changes to gun laws has given him a new sense of purpose. (He will be the lead sponsor of a red flag bill, aimed at confiscating guns from people deemed to be a public safety hazard, in his first legislative session.) But the work does not repair his grief.

“People say tragedy doesn’t change you, it reveals you. And it revealed to me I had these capabilities,” Sullivan said. “But people ask, ‘Was this always your retirement plan?’ I say, ‘No, I planned to sit in the backyard with Alex and pick our fantasy football teams.’ Maybe he would have had kids by this time. That’s what I thought it would be like and it was all taken away.”

A built-in grassroots arm

While the Democrats’ flipped 40 House seats last month on a battlefield that stretched largely across suburban districts, their jubilation in the weeks since Election Day has been tempered by a debate about the durability of those gains.

The success of Moms Demand Action — which Watts describes as “one of the largest grassroots movements in the country” — might point to the issue of gun control as a path to securing reliable Democratic footholds in the suburbs and changing the country’s gun laws.

Watts founded Moms Demand Action by creating a Facebook group and seeking out other parents who felt horrified by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which occurred six years ago Friday. But these days, the group positions itself as a dogged rival to the NRA, one of the most powerful interest groups in the country.

The NRA derives much of its political heft from its ability to engage and motivate staunchly pro-gun rights voters with television ads, mailers and other media. But Moms Demand Action might provide a counterweight.

Take the McBath race. She prevailed with a modest $1.2 million campaign chest in the same district where Democrat Jon Ossoff, running for Rep. Tom Price’s vacated seat in a 2017 special election, had failed, despite spending thirty-fold more: $31 million.

But those numbers belie McBath’s “built-in grassroots arm” in the form of Moms Demand Action volunteers who knocked on doors, made phone calls, and sent postcards to voters, according to Watts.

In New Hampshire, Democrat Linda Harriott-Garthright credited Moms Demand Action for helping her win back her state House seat in part by supplying volunteers to knock doors, an important asset in a state that values face time with candidates.

Her campaign was also aided by calls and donations, “the whole nine yards,” Harriott-Garthright said. She also campaigned on increasing the minimum wage.

Her position on guns is informed by the 1980 shooting death of her brother-in-law, a case still unsolved.

She thinks the issue of gun control resonated with voters “because it’s real for them: moms and dads, aunts and uncles. With all of the shootings going on, they realize that could have happened at my school, and my church. I think that has a lot to do with it.”

Moms Demand Action volunteers also boosted Christy Clark, a mother stirred to advocacy by school shootings who won a North Carolina state House seat north of Charlotte that Republicans had held for 18 years. Clark attributes that history in part to gerrymandering.

Clark started to think about running for office when her state legislators kept rescheduling hearings on a spate of guns rights bills, which she viewed as an attempt to shut out Moms Demand Action volunteers. But as a stay-at-home mom with a relatively flexible schedule, she was often able to stick around until the meeting occurred.

“I had this misconception that politicians wanted to hear from their constituents,” said Clark, who also ran on expanding Medicaid and increasing funding for education.

“One of the most important things Moms Demand Action did was to provide training for volunteers — everything from letters to the editor to speaking to the media to understanding legislation to phone banking — everything you need to run a campaign,” Clark said. “Running an issue-based campaign [for gun safety] translated pretty easily to campaigning for office.”

From the Vault: Gun Control Front and Center in Remaining Democratic Primaries

Correction 8:20 a.m. | An earlier version of this story misidentified Christy Clark.

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