/Republicans’ Love of Guns May Cost Them Votes in the Suburbs

Republicans’ Love of Guns May Cost Them Votes in the Suburbs

A memorial service in Ohio for the victims of the Dayton massacre.
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

There’s a sad ritual that accompanies every major gun massacre in this country. There is a universally shared sense of shock and horror initially, followed sometimes by anger at the perpetrator and the cause (if any) he’s killing people to advance. Then Democrats call for minor gun-safety regulations, the sort that would be absolute no-brainers anywhere else on the planet, and Republicans call for prayers and mental-health improvements. This has played out as scripted after the killings last weekend in El Paso and Dayton, capped by the president’s speech assuring us all that “mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.”

If the Republican camp is divided, it’s typically because many conservatives sincerely believe (or say they believe) that a vastly greater proliferation of weaponry is the best and only way to keep families safe. A heavily armed population can not only speedily take down these little gun-toting wimps who terrorize schools and public places, they suggest, but can ensure pols remember there is a Second Amendment remedy for high taxes and other government overreach.

To be sure, neither the aggressive nor the indifferent version of Republican unwillingness to regulate firearms is terribly popular. For years, large majorities of Americans have supported tightening the background-check system. We had an assault-weapons ban in place for ten years (1994 through 2013), and while assessments of its efficacy vary, it was not accompanied by a rise in crime or the extinction of U.S. liberty. Yet Republicans never seem to pay any political price for their increasingly rigid opposition to the most modest gun-safety legislation, which is in lockstep with the increasingly rigid position of the gun lobby. Indeed, Second Amendment absolutism is generally thought to be a significant part of the cultural bond the GOP has formed with white folks in rural and small-town America, where gun possession and use has become a bit of a secular religion and an implicitly threatening sign of hostility to effete urban elites.

With the latest wave of gun violence, however, there are growing fears in Republican ranks that the GOP, which is already on shaky suburban ground, thanks to its barbarian leader and its atavistic positions on health care and the environment, may finally, in 2020, suffer some real damage for its slavish opposition to the most modest weapons restrictions. Sahil Kapur has the story:

“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 …

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% to 22%, 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% to 29%.”

Unless we get lucky as a society, and gun massacres abate, it’s likely to be a bigger issue in 2020, when 2018-level Democratic performance in the suburbs would mean an abrupt end to Donald Trump’s presidency and perhaps continued congressional and state and local losses. But worse yet for the GOP, fear and anger over lax gun policies could merge with fear and anger over Trump’s violence-inducing rhetoric, and not only persuade suburban voters to go blue, but also boost Democratic turnout to record levels (much like the record midterm turnout last year).

It remains possible, as Republicans recognize the new risks, that GOP congressional leaders could agree to a small breach in the wall of opposition to new gun regulation. Even Trump hinted at this possibility on Twitter, before retreating in his formal speech to the traditional “guns don’t kill” position:

Unless Trump really changes his mind, Mitch McConnell is likely to be the undertaker for any new gun legislation, most particularly the two background-check bills that passed the House earlier this year. The Senate was similarly the graveyard in 2013 (not long after the Sandy Hook school massacre) for the extremely modest bipartisan legislation on the subject sponsored by Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin, neither of whom are even vaguely anti-gun. Nor did their proposal gain sufficient new life to go anywhere in 2018 after the Parkland school massacre, even though Trump made some expressions of interest on Twitter then, too.

But what if Republican House and Senate candidates — or even the Trump reelection campaign — become genuinely fearful about the gun issue’s impact on suburban voters in 2020? The GOP may simply be too far down the road in its marriage to the gun lobby to turn back now, even if their own constituents and like-minded swing voters favor action. Perry Bacon Jr. explains the phenomenon of the GOP’s unwillingness to adapt even in the face of political peril:

[T]he NRA is organized and donates heavily to conservative politicians, and Fox News is likely to bash gun control measures. But beyond that, there is no countervailing force in the party promoting gun control, offering resources and money to help Republicans who take that stance. In this sense, gun policy in the GOP is akin to abortion on the Democratic side — there’s a sizable bloc of Democrats who favor limits on abortion, but there’s no counterweight to abortion rights groups like Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood.

And guns have become an “identity issue” to the GOP’s rural, small-town and exurban white base:

[V]iews on guns don’t exist in a vacuum: They are part of and connected to broader forces driving conservative politics. For example, University of Illinois at Chicago scholars Alexandra Filindra and Noah Kaplan concluded in a 2015 study that more negative attitudes towards minorities (“racial resentment”) are a predictor of opposition to gun control among white Americans.

If you are, say, Donald J. Trump, running for reelection with a strategy of revving up that base into a generalized frenzy of fear focused on nonwhite people and their “elite,” gun-control-peddling allies, suddenly favoring gun safety legislation — or for that matter, any sort of bipartisanship other than on purely Trumpian terms — could mix the message. So suburban Republicans won’t likely get much cover from the boss, unless real-life events take an even more terrifying turn for the worse.