Rising crime rejuvenates gun control debate on campaign trail

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The battle over gun control is emerging as a campaign issue heading into the midterms as gun violence rises in the U.S.

The country has seen a wave of gun-related deaths as it reopens amid the coronavirus pandemic. According to data compiled by the Gun Violence Archive for NBC News, firearm deaths increased by 15 percent last month compared to the same period in 2019.

Republicans have attributed the rise in violence to progressive efforts to reform and in some cases direct funds away from police departments. But Democrats say gun policies are at the heart of the issue.

“At the moment there’s so many examples of irresponsible gun ownership, people having easy access to guns. It sort of makes the case,” said University of New Haven criminal justice professor Michael Lawlor, who also served as a Democratic member of the Connecticut House of Representatives.

Democrats point to polling that shows more Americans in favor of stricter gun control regulations. Eighty-four percent of voters, including 77 percent of Republicans, say they support gun buyers having to go through a background check, according to a March Morning Consult poll.

“It’s very much become sort of a triple threat,” said Charlie Kelly, a senior political adviser to the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety. “It mobilizes voters, it persuades, and it’s also increasingly becoming a litmus test issue where if a candidate is not supportive of gun safety measures, they’re basically disqualified as a choice for a voter.” 

The issue has already permeated the campaign trail ahead of the 2022 midterms.

Randy Friese, a trauma surgeon and Democratic member of the Arizona House of Representatives, and Kina Collins, a community organizer and activist in Chicago, have both been affected personally by gun violence and have made the issue a central tenet of their campaigns.

Freise and Collins are running in Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District and Illinois’s 7th Congressional District, respectively. Both districts are considered Democratic-leaning.

Friese gained prominence when he treated former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) after she was shot during a constituent event in Tucson in 2011.

Sixteen victims and families of those affected by the shooting have endorsed Friese for the seat, and have played an active role in the campaign, raising $20,000 for Friese earlier this month.

“There has really been next to nothing done for years and years,” Friese told The Hill. “Background checks and comprehensive background checks would be wonderful. Can we get there in a two-year term if I am successful? Can I get us there in a two-year term? I sure will try.”

Collins discussed her experience of witnessing a young person shot in front of her childhood home in Chicago.  

“Whether you live on the westside of Chicago or in Newtown, Conn., there are still 7-year-olds who are witnessing this epidemic ravage their communities,” she told The Hill.

Chicago has been continuously plagued by gun violence and has been used by both parties to promote their respective stances on guns. Republicans argue that gun violence in the city is connected to Illinois’s strict gun laws, while Democrats say it’s a result of lax gun control laws.

“For far too long, Chicago has been used as a political punching bag,” Collins said. “Most of the guns that are apprehended after a homicide here in the city of Chicago have come from Indiana. So it’s not what’s happening here in the state of Illinois because we’re pushing back, it’s because the surrounding states around us have those looser laws.”

Republicans, on the other hand, have taken a different approach to the spike in gun violence, arguing that it’s a result of a lack of law and order.

“Democrats can talk gun control until they’re blue in the face but the problem they face at the ballot box in 2022 is skyrocketing crime in cities and states that they control,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Talk of gun control is a distraction to try to hold their base together because when I look at this, the root cause of the skyrocketing crime, outside of coming out of COVID, is really their ‘defund the police’ message.”

The GOP successfully tied a number of Democrats to the “defund the police” movement in the 2020 general election, a tactic some centrist Democrats blame for their narrow House majority.

In New Mexico, state Sen. Mark Moores (R) sought to make crime and safety an issue in that state’s special election to fill the seat once held by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. Moores highlighted rising crime rates and painted his Democratic opponent, state Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D), as weak on law enforcement, but ultimately lost the race earlier this month.

Still, Republicans see an opportunity with suburban voters living outside of cities with surging gun violence rates. 

“This is about safety,” O’Connell added. “People, particularly the voters that maybe Biden picked up in the 2020 election, those suburban voters, when they don’t feel safe, they don’t care about which party is telling them that they’re going to make them more safe. They want someone to have a solution to make them more safe.”

Gun violence is one of many issues that has reignited the debate of the filibuster, a Senate parliamentary tactic used to block pieces of legislation. Sixty votes are needed for legislation to overcome a filibuster, meaning the 50 Democrats in the Senate need 10 Republicans to pass legislation on issues from police reform to gun control.

Both parties have tried to work together on gun reform, but the most recent attempt between Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) ended Wednesday.

Many Democrats argue that the filibuster’s role in making it more difficult to pass gun control initiatives makes eliminating the tactic an important campaign issue as well.

“It’s yet another issue where the filibuster is so clearly exposed as being at fault for why we can’t have stronger gun safety laws,” said former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee aide Tyler Law. “It’s not promoting bipartisanship, it’s just standing in the way of things that the vast majority of people support.”

Collins told The Hill she supports an end to the filibuster, while Friese’s campaign said he strongly supported filibuster reform in the Senate.

Experts say that gun control and crime will be defining issues going into the midterms, and both have the potential to sink candidates.

“This is going to be a hot topic,” Lawlor said. “You better study up on it if you don’t already have a lot of experience with it, the same with guns.” 

Tags Chris Murphy Deb Haaland Gabby Giffords Gun control gun violence John Cornyn Kina Collins Randy Friese
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