2020 hopes rise for gun control groups after Virginia elections

2020 hopes rise for gun control groups after Virginia elections
© Aaron Schwartz

Fresh off their success in helping flip control of the Virginia legislature, gun control advocates are now turning their attention to 2020 races in Texas and Colorado, two states that are likely to present tougher hurdles.

Democrats this month captured control of the Virginia General Assembly for the first time in decades, helped in part by a flood of money — and muscle — from gun control advocates such as Everytown for Gun Safety that mainly targeted suburban districts.

The success in Virginia has gun advocates hopeful that momentum is on their side after a recent raft of shootings continues to bring national attention to the issue of guns.

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The groups are now planning to target Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump GOP senators unveil bill to expand 'opportunity zone' reporting requirements Overnight Health Care: House to vote next week on drug prices bill | Conway says Trump trying to find 'balance' on youth vaping | US spent trillion on hospitals in 2018 MORE (R) in Colorado as well as Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump, GOP shift focus from alleged surveillance abuse to Durham Russia probe Hillicon Valley: FTC rules Cambridge Analytica engaged in 'deceptive practices' | NATO researchers warn social media failing to remove fake accounts | Sanders calls for breaking up Comcast, Verizon Bipartisan senators call on FERC to protect against Huawei threats MORE (R) and the legislature in Texas as part of their broader national strategy.

“The [Virginia] results really should strike fear in the heart of every candidate who has taken their cues from the gun lobby,” Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts said.

“We have this momentum that we can take straight into 2020,” Watts said. “We can replicate our Virginia playbook and elect a gun sense president and flip other state legislatures across the country.”

Moms Demand Action is the grassroots arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy organization affiliated with Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergBannon: Clinton waiting to enter 2020 race and 'save the Democratic Party from Michael Bloomberg' Bloomberg reporting policy not pretty or perfect, but right Booker campaign rakes in million after Harris exits 2020 race MORE.

Everytown put $2.5 million into the Virginia election, outspending the National Rifle Association (NRA) 8 to 1, Watts said.

In addition to funding an ad campaign, volunteers made more than 100,000 calls, knocked on tens of thousands of doors and sent more than 100,000 texts to reach voters across the state, including rural, suburban and urban areas, Watts said.

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Advocate groups back measures they say will mitigate gun violence, including stronger background check laws, “red flag” laws that would allow authorities to temporarily remove guns from those deemed dangerous and regulations curbing the sale of semi-automatic weapons.

Recent polling points to a gain in support for such laws. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in September found 60 percent of Americans supported stricter gun laws, up from 52 percent in 2017.

And a Harvard CAPS–Harris Poll survey from September found gun violence is becoming a top concern for voters ahead of 2020 elections, with 27 percent of respondents seeing it as their top issue, up from 20 percent the month before.

“I think the landscape on guns has changed so much so rapidly,” said Angela Kuefler, senior vice president of research at the Global Strategy Group, which has worked with Everytown and Giffords Courage to Fight Gun Violence.

“We are seeing it become a top tier issue in any number of states. I don’t think it’s just a one-off thing with Virginia,” she added.

Among the top targets for gun control advocates will be Gardner in Colorado, at a time when Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate.

The Senate has become a main focus area for gun control advocates after a House-passed universal background check bill is among Democratic-backed legislation that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKey House and Senate health leaders reach deal to stop surprise medical bills Biden: 'No party should have too much power' Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill MORE (R-Ky.) has not called to a vote.

Gardner’s seat is rated as a “toss up,” according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, and three major candidates have launched bids to unseat him, including former Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Impeachment enters new crucial phase Bullock drops White House bid, won't run for Senate 2020 hopes rise for gun control groups after Virginia elections MORE, who announced his challenge after dropping out of the presidential race.

Giffords Courage to Fight Gun Violence has launched two ads in Colorado targeting Gardner as part of the organization’s $750,000 campaign pressuring the Senate to hold a vote on a House-passed universal background check bill.

In response, a spokesperson for Gardner’s campaign touted the senator’s work on bills such as the STOP School Violence act, which funds increased school security programs, and the EAGLES Act, which would expand the national Threat Assessment Center to prevent acts of targeted violence.

Gun control groups are also set to target Cornyn in Texas, though he is expected to be a much tougher incumbent to defeat.

The three-term senator is running for reelection in a race the Cook Political Report rates as “solid” Republican.

But Democrats and gun control advocates are encouraged after former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) lost only narrowly against Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDemocrats express confidence in case as impeachment speeds forward Chuck Todd challenges Cruz after senator pushes theory that Ukraine meddled in election Sunday shows — Nadler: A jury would convict Trump in 'three minutes flat' MORE (R) in 2018, even as Cornyn is likely to be a more formidable incumbent.

Drew Brandewie, a spokesman for Cornyn, touted the senator’s work on shoring up existing control systems, including the NICS Act, which he introduced with Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump Democratic senator says he knows 'handful' of GOP colleagues considering vote to remove Trump Both sides have reason to want speedy Trump impeachment trial MORE (D-Conn.) and which aims to fill gaps in the background check system by incentivizing the uploading of missing records. The bill was also endorsed by Everytown. 

Cornyn also introduced the Response Act, which aims to expand resources for mental health treatment, prosecute illegal unlicensed firearm dealers and increase school safety measure, though gun control advocates have criticized it as not going far enough.

Gun control groups are also looking at targeting the Texas Legislature, where Democrats are nine seats away from flipping the state House and one seat away from breaking up the state Senate supermajority.
Strategists and gun control advocates say that recent mass shootings are starting to change minds in a state that has passed among the most friendly legislations for guns in the country.

Joana Belanger, political director of Giffords Courage to Fight Gun Violence, pointed to two Texas suburban congressional districts Democrats flipped in 2018, saying she expects “more of that as we continue to see this suburban shift where voters are really rejecting the inaction on this issue and looking for actual change now.”

A Texas Tribune–University of Texas poll earlier this month found 81 percent support for background checks among Texans, including 74 percent support among Republicans and 73 percent from independents. Red flag laws were almost as popular, with 68 percent of Texans showing support, based on the poll.

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Even a ban on the sale of assault weapons had support from more than half of Texans, at 59 percent.
Nonetheless, Colorado and Texas will present a tougher hurdle than Virginia, a state that had already been shifting to the left over the past years.

Gun rights groups such as the NRA are also bound to put up stronger opposition.

“As the battle continues, so does the NRA’s defense of the Second Amendment rights of all Americans,” the NRA said in a statement to The Hill.

But gun control advocates are encouraged, nonetheless.

Moms Demand Action, March for Our Lives and other advocates have already been organizing across Texas in support of gun control legislation.

And gun control advocates point to changing mindsets across the country.

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Kuefler said she has been doing research with gun control advocacy groups for about a decade. She said focus groups used to point to more generic issues as the cause of mass shootings, such as “bad parenting.” That’s changed the last couple of years, she said, and now Americans are citing lax gun laws as a cause.

“Certainly, some geographical areas are absolutely easier than others when it comes to this issue, [but] there is more of an opening now considering how people are really experiencing this in their everyday lives,” Kuefler said.

-- Updated at 9:50 a.m.