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After two gruesome mass shootings in a 24-hour span, some Republicans are raising alarms that their opposition to new firearm limits is making the party toxic to the suburban women and college graduates who will shape the 2020 election.
“Republicans are headed for extinction in the suburbs if they don’t distance themselves from the NRA. The GOP needs to put forth solutions to help eradicate the gun violence epidemic,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and oil-and-gas executive who supports President Donald Trump.
Last year, Eberhart said, he was having lunch with Rick Scott when the then-Florida governor learned of the massacre unfolding in Parkland, Florida. It marked the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history, as a gunman used an AR-15-style rifle to kill 17 people. Eighteen months later, as the country reels from killing sprees in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Eberhart said it’s time to join Democrats and majorities of Americans who want to ban those types of guns.
“The GOP needs to make several moves such as universal background checks, eliminating loopholes and banning military-style assault weapons to neutralize the issue,” he said. “Otherwise, Republicans will lose suburban voters just like they did in the midterms on health care.”
While most Republicans have opposed expanding background checks and banning assault-rifles, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said Monday he cut a deal with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, on “red flag” legislation to assist and encourage states to keep guns away from people who are found to pose an imminent risk of violence. Many Democrats said that wasn’t enough and called for a renewal of the assault-weapons ban and universal background checks, among other measures.
The 2018 election reflected a changing landscape on guns. Republicans were swept out of the House majority after losing suburban bastions where they were once dominant — in places like Orange County, California, and around Dallas and Houston in Texas. Voters in 2018 favored stricter gun control by a margin of 22 percentage points, and those who did backed Democrats by a margin of 76 percent to 22 percent, according to exit polls. Gun policy ranked as the No. 4 concern, and voters who cited it as their top issue voted Democrat by a margin of 70 percent to 29 percent.
There have been 255 mass shootings so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which counts incidents where at least four people were shot or killed, not including the shooter. With the presidential election 15 months away, it’s unclear just how salient the issue of guns will be in shaping voter behavior.
The renewed debate captures a dilemma for Trump as he revs up his re-election campaign with appeals to rural Americans steeped in a rich gun culture. But he risks alienating upper-income suburbanites, who can make or break his prospects, if he’s seen as unwilling to take action to stop frequent mass shootings.
All of the major Democratic candidates are running on gun control measures, including tougher background checks and banning assault weapons, setting up a stark contrast with Trump.
“Every time the country experiences a tragedy of this nature the Republican brand takes a hit,” said Carlos Curbelo, a Republican former congressman who lost to a Democrat his suburban Miami-area district in 2018. “Because many, many Americans perceive that Republicans are unwilling to act on gun reform, due to the influence of the NRA and other organizations.”
“Certainly in swing suburban districts there is broad support for” policies like universal background checks and 72-hour waiting periods, Curbelo said. “A lot of voters, especially young voters, have lost their patience with this issue.”
A Marist poll last month, commissioned by NPR and PBS, found that 57 percent of American adults support banning “the sale of semi-automatic assault guns such as the AK-47 or the AR-15,” while 41 percent oppose it. Support for such bans was 62 percent among suburbanites, 74 percent among women in the suburbs and small cities and 65 percent among white college graduates.
But the survey found broad opposition to banning semi-automatic assault weapons among the core elements of Trump’s coalition — 67 percent among Republicans, 67 percent among conservatives, 65 percent among white men without college degrees and 51 percent among rural Americans.
The party’s longstanding opposition to gun control is a product of party leaders working to consolidate single-issue firearm owners voters who reliably turn out in elections and tend to view any new restrictions as a threat to their Second Amendment rights.
It explains why most Republicans oppose even modest measures like universal background checks, which received 89 percent national support in the Marist poll, including large majorities across all demographic and party affiliations. The NRA opposes that proposal, too.
“The NRA is committed to the safe and lawful use of firearms by those exercising their Second Amendment freedoms,” the NRA said in a statement Sunday, adding that it “will not participate in the politicizing of these tragedies” but will work to pursue practical solutions.
Earlier this year, eight House Republicans from suburban or competitive districts voted with Democrats to pass a bill that would impose background checks on buyers for gun sales considered private, which are not currently required by federal law.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has refused to consider the bill, and Trump has threatened to veto it.
In a statement Monday, Trump denounced the “twisted” killers over the weekend and called for new “red flag” laws to keep firearms away from people found to be dangerous. He blamed the internet, social media and violent video games for pushing people toward violence, though he suggested easy access to guns wasn’t the problem.
“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” he said.
Gun politics have shifted since President Barack Obama avoided the issue in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns for fear that it was a political loser. During Obama’s first term, the country was evenly divided on whether gun laws should be made stricter or stay the same, according to Gallup. By October 2018, support for stricter firearm laws outnumbered support for maintaining them by 31 points.
The shift was propelled by the Newtown elementary school massacre in December 2012, after which Senate Democratic leaders attempted to pass a bipartisan bill to require universal background checks, but were thwarted by a coalition of mostly Republicans.
Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, the Republican co-author of the bill, said Monday he spoke with Trump and urged him to support the measure, adding that the president expressed openness to work on background check legislation.
Toomey said he hoped that “the accumulated pain from so many of these horrific experiences will be motivation to do something.”
“I hope we’re at a moment where the atmosphere has changed,” Toomey told reporters.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, signaled openness to new gun laws on Sunday and said he wants to be a “constructive voice” in the debate.
“These issues involve constitutional rights and deeply held beliefs — but that is not an excuse to shy away from a serious, fact-based, and thorough national discussion which will potentially lead to remedial legislation,” he said.