A Third Rail No More: Incoming House Democrats Embrace Gun Control

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The deadly mass shooting at a bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif., last week came less than a day after dozens of Democrats who campaigned on promises to strengthen gun laws were elected to the House of Representatives. Across the country, candidates from Virginia, Georgia, Texas and Washington State bluntly called for more gun safety, seemingly emboldened to take on the NRA.

In total, 95 candidates endorsed by Giffords PAC won seats in the House. Giffords PAC is the gun-violence prevention group founded by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband.

Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control group founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, pointed to equally successful results — an 83 percent win rate among its 66 endorsements in federal races.

Both groups insist that in contests where they took on incumbents supported by the NRA, they were more successful than the powerful gun lobby.

In an emailed statement, the NRA said "gun control was not a decisive factor on election day," disputed the notion of a "blue wave" and pointed to key Senate wins in Tennessee, Indiana and Missouri, where NRA-backed candidates defeated Democratic incumbents.

Still, the NRA has not seen this level of electoral pushback in a long time. In recent elections, gun rights groups have consistently outspent gun control groups, according to data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics. But not this year. Gun control groups spent about $2.4 million more than gun rights groups on congressional races in 2018.

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After recent mass shooting, GOP congressional leaders have come under criticism for offering their thoughts and prayers, but little legislative action. The next Congress may be very different.

Last week, after the shooting in California, the likely incoming speaker, Nancy Pelosi, told CNN she wants action on "common-sense background checks to prevent guns going into the wrong hands."

"This will be a priority for us in the next Congress," she added.

Following last week's elections, there is now a committed group of Democrats in the new House who will likely push for new gun restrictions. Still, such bills are highly unlikely to pass a Republican-controlled Senate or be signed into law by President Trump.

"The House is now going to be the seat of power for Democrats at the federal level, so it's really going to drive the agenda for what the Democratic Party stands for going into the primary in 2020," said Lanae Erickson, vice president for social policy and politics at the center-left think tank Third Way.

While any gun-related legislation Democrats might pass may never make it into law, Erickson says, House Democrats can show voters what their party would do if it gains more power.

Democrats newly united around gun control

But Democratic unity around gun reform is a somewhat new idea. In the past couple of years, guns have become a litmus test for Democrats, in much the same way as abortion or gay marriage. This cycle, the NRA supported just three House Democrats. Just a decade ago, far more Democrats sought out the group's approval.

"I remember in 2006 and 2008, when Democrats recruited so-called NRA Democrats to rebuild their majority in Congress, and the manifestation of that strategy was inaction," said Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords and a veteran House staffer.

The political culture has changed, and so has the political calculus.

"Candidates have been so afraid in the past, they've thought that supporting gun safety was only a negative in terms of the politics," said Erickson with Third Way.

But in 2018, perhaps because of the the political activity around the Parkland, Fla., school shootings, many candidates campaigned openly on promises to strengthen gun laws.

"This issue used to be considered the third rail of American politics, but no longer," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.

Undoubtedly, some Democrats still don't emphasize their stance on gun control, but the overall Democratic recalibration on gun policy wasn't limited to the stereotypical cities on the coasts.

Gun rights groups point to victories in Georgia's 6th Congressional District, a seat once held by the conservative icon Newt Gingrich. There, the Democratic candidate, gun control advocate Lucy McBath won against an NRA-endorsed Republican incumbent, Karen Handel. In Texas's 7th Congressional District, Democrat Lizzie Fletcher defeated incumbent John Culberson, another Republican with an A rating from the NRA. In suburban Denver, in Colorado's 6th Congressional District, Democrat Jason Crow unseated incumbent Republican Mike Coffman, who also had the backing of the NRA.

"The contrast between me and my opponent was very stark," said Crow. "He had a lifetime A rating by the NRA."

Crow, who points out that he's a gun owner who served as an Army Ranger and grew up hunting, ran a vocal campaign calling for gun reform. He felt that voters in his district in particular were tired of congressional inaction.

"Our community has been has been disproportionately impacted by gun violence over the years, from the Aurora theater shooting to Columbine," said Crow. "And we're going to do something about this."

Crow has specifically called for universal background checks and a repeal of the of the Dickey Amendment, a 1996 provision that restricts federal funding for research on gun violence.

"It is way past time for the [Centers for Disease Control] to have the funding that that they need to study this as the public health crisis that it is," he said.

Crow is not the only new voice in Congress calling for that change. Democrat Kim Schrier, a doctor who won a traditionally Republican seat in Washington State, said she also would seek to repeal the Dickey Amendment.

"It's different to come at this as a pediatrician and not a career politician," said Schrier, who ran an ad during her campaign talking about the risks of having a gun in the house around depressed boys. "My goal here is to keep our children and our communities safe, and I don't think there is anything radical about that."

Schrier says health care was undoubtedly the most consistent policy concern she heard from voters on the campaign trail this year, and that's consistent with most polling. But she said she also heard a lot about gun safety, particularly from women and mothers.

"Women had a big say in the election and I think the issue of gun safety resonates there," said Schrier. "I know it does."

The gun conversation used to feel incredibly "asymmetric," according to Erickson at Third Way, but she says last week's results suggest that's changing.

"Even though it isn't the number one or number two overall concern for most voters, there's a very committed activist base now that is at the Democratic Party's political table, pushing that this be one of the top things on its agenda," she said.

Erickson says part of that change is due to the changing coalition within the Democratic Party, as Democrats see their chances diminish in rural areas and potentially grow in the suburbs.

"Suburban women have always been supportive of gun safety, and now they make up a bigger piece of the coalition," said Erickson. "And that really transforms the policy of guns for the Democratic Party."

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