Congress

One year after Parkland, gun control advocates eye 2020

Advocates say midterm results proved gun control was a winning policy issue

Students rally on the West Front of the Capitol on March 14, 2018 as they participate in a national school walkout to call for action on preventing gun violence. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

One year after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that galvanized young voters and jump-started a movement to combat gun violence, gun control advocates say there’s still more work to be done.

“We’re just gearing up,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and proponent of stricter gun laws. “There were a lot of candidates who got it in 2018. But there are more candidates that are going to learn the lesson from 2018.”

More candidates talked about gun violence on the campaign trail and in ads in last year’s midterms than in recent cycles. And gun control supporters say the results — which saw Democrats flip the House by netting 40 Republican-held seats — proved that was a winning strategy.  

Advocates have been working to shift the narrative around gun violence on the campaign trail for years. And the movement picked up steam after students and parents affected by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School organized marches and voter registration drives around the country.

“Certainly, Parkland was an accelerant,” said Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords: Courage to End Gun Violence, a group founded by former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was injured in a shooting at a 2011 constituent event in Arizona.

“In the aftermath of Parkland, voters became newly outraged all over again,” Ambler said.

Also watch: House holds a moment of silence remembering the victims of Parkland

Political shift?

A Reuters analysis last July found that Democrats in competitive races were more willing to talk about gun violence — 38 of the 59 Democrats in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program for strong recruits supported stricter gun laws on their campaign websites. Just four of the 36 Red to Blue candidates did so at the same point in 2016.

And gun safety groups outspent gun rights groups — $11.9 million to $9.9 million — for the first time in recent cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The major gun rights group, the National Rifle Association, did not respond to a request for comment.

“The politics have changed,” said Ambler. Giffords’ independent expenditure arm spent nearly $7 million in four districts last cycle — Colorado’s 6th, Minnesota’s 2nd, Virginia’s 10th and Texas’ 7th — and a Democrat ousted the sitting Republican in each race.

Gun control advocates say the movement has been building in the years since Congress failed to act after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. Murphy previously represented Newtown in the House.

But the firestorm ignited by Parkland, with student activists demanding change, helped move the effort forward.

“This has been a slow, gradual buildup of political power,” Murphy said. “I think Parkland was a moment when a lot of new voters, especially young voters, came into this movement.”

Murphy also said the Parkland shooting was “the tipping point for the NRA.” An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from a month after the shooting found the group with a net unfavorable rating for the first time since 2000. The NRA has also experienced a decline in revenue.

Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, said her organization attracted thousands of volunteers after the Parkland shooting. The group is the grassroots arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, and they have garnered 1.2 million additional supporters since the shooting, bringing their total supporters to 5.7 million. 

On to 2020 

Ambler said it’s too early to start naming Giffords’ House and Senate targets for the 2020 cycle. But he said the group is “always going to be there for our friends,” and he expected combating gun violence to be a central message in competitive House races. 

But with the Democrat now in control of the House, the focus is likely to be on winning the Senate in 2020. 

“In a lot of ways, our next targets are the Senate and the White House,” Ambler said.

Giffords and other gun safety groups mainly support Democrats, who need a net gain of three or four seats to win the Senate next year. (They would only need three if they win the presidency, since the vice president casts tie-breaking votes).  

Murphy said there will be particular pressure on vulnerable Senate Republicans should the House pass a bill expanding background checks.

“I’m telling you the Republicans are not winning states with big suburban populations, like Iowa and North Carolina and Colorado, if they don’t bring up the background checks bill in the Senate,” he said.

As gun control advocates weigh their next campaign targets, the Democratic National Committee is using the anniversary of the Parkland shooting to raise money ahead of 2020.

The DNC sent a fundraising email from Murphy on Wednesday with the subject line, “One year ago,” telling donors that “the gun lobby is already working hard to erase the gains we made last cycle.”

Asked about the fundraising email referencing the tragic shooting, Murphy said, “We’re a 24/7 political movement. ... We don’t take a single day off in trying to build a political movement that is ultimately going to save thousands of lives in this country.”

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