The momentum shift on the gun debate over the last week is so clear and palpable that it's created the space for Democrats to reclaim gun safety as a winning political issue. And they shouldn't waste a second to capitalize.
Along with the many false nuggets of conventional wisdom that have developed on the gun debate over the last couple of decades is the notion that it's a losing issue at the polls. Nothing could be further from the truth moving forward. Not only do voters in red states and blue states alike almost always vote for ballot measures that restrict gun access, the key governorships and legislatures that Democrats need to flip in 2018 exist in states that also have very lax gun laws. In fact, Republicans are now on the wrong side of the gun debate that’s sweeping America. As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent writes:
Many of the major gubernatorial pickup opportunities for Dems — such as New Mexico, Maine, Nevada, Ohio, Michigan and Florida, where the latest massacre took place — also get dismal ratings for their gun-control laws in the most recent state-by-state ratings from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Five of those states have more gun deaths than the national average, and there may be a correlation between deaths and weak regulations. [...]
“It is an opportunity for Democratic candidates to lead,” [Democratic Governors Association executive director Elizabeth] Pearson said. “People in states everywhere are looking for people who will lead on this issue and actually talk about it. Republicans are terrified of taking on their base and the National Rifle Association, and are unable to lead because of that.”
This dynamic already bore out in last year's Virginia election, which took place in the aftermath of the Las Vegas slaughter last October that claimed 58 lives and wounded some 500 people. Democrat Ralph Northam, a doctor who ultimately prevailed, talked more passionately about gun safety than either his Democratic primary challenger or his Republican opponent.
“I know all too well what assault weapons do to human beings,” he said. “And until I don’t have another breath in my lungs, I will stand up and tell people that we do not need assault weapons on our streets.”
But before the election, there was still some question about how voters would respond to Northam's direct, pro-safety advance.
Here's how the New York Times framed the terrain last October:
But gun rights remain a potent rallying cry in many places. Democrats who lead with the issue are at risk of poking a hornet’s nest, as happened two years ago when Republicans retained control over the Legislature in races animated by gun issues.
That concern turned out to be totally false. Not only did Democrats flip a historic number of down-ballot seats, but exit polls showed that just as many Democratic and Republican voters named guns as their No. 2 issue—49 percent. Here’s Sargent again:
It’s true that Virginia may be evolving along with these cultural shifts faster than some of the other states facing big gubernatorial contests. But places such as Florida, Nevada, Michigan and Ohio nonetheless may offer fertile ground on which to press the issue. As Pearson told me, there are “huge populations” in “non-rural areas” in those states. “Those groups tend to be really important swing populations for us,” Pearson said. “This issue is going to be something they want candidates to lead on.”
This issue has been crying out for leadership for over a decade. A generation of Parkland students is finally responding and creating the political space for Democrats to both take the moral high ground on gun safety and inspire votes in the process. Not following the lead of these brave new student leaders would be a missed opportunity on so many levels, and a colossal political mistake.