Why this moment for gun politics is different

It’s a pivotal moment for gun politics. The history of midterm elections suggests Democrats are at risk of losing the House next year, shrinking their window for legislative victories.

“The time is definitely now,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun-control group Giffords. “We can’t wait.”

It’s in no small part due to the changing demographics and voting behavior of Georgia and Colorado that gun reform is on the table in Washington at all. It was the January runoff elections in Georgia, only recently a solidly Republican state, that gave Democrats their functional majority in the Senate.

Colorado, now reliably Democratic after years as a swing state, sent John Hickenlooper to the Senate in November, defeating the Republican incumbent, Cory Gardner, by nearly 10 percentage points. And in Colorado, in particular, there are reasons for Democrats to find optimism in the gun reform movement. Nowhere near a bastion of far-left politics, lawmakers there nevertheless have enacted stricter gun laws in recent years. So had the city of Boulder, where a locally passed assault weapons ban was blocked by a judge earlier this month. Lawmakers are discussing potential legislation in response — to allow cities to enact more stringent gun laws than the state.

Tom Sullivan, a Colorado state lawmaker who sought elected office after his son, Alex, was killed in the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, said the climate surrounding gun legislation has “obviously” shifted — as evidenced by his own election and those of other survivors of victims of gun violence, including Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia, whose teenage son was shot to death in 2012. Gun control was a winning issue for Democrats in some congressional swing districts nationally in the midterm elections in 2018.

“We can run on this issue, and we can win elections on this issue,” Sullivan said. “Quite obviously, the tone has changed.”

Democrats, of course, lack a filibuster-proof majority. And at least one Senate Democrat, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, hails from one of the most pro-gun states in the nation. But even if legislation ultimately fails in Washington, holding a vote on a major gun reform bill could be politically significant ahead of the midterm elections next year. For Democrats, said Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster, such legislation “would be, at least to some extent, to get a vote on it and be able to use it in suburban districts” in Colorado and across the country.

Still, Colorado is also the state of Lauren Boebert, the gun-toting congresswoman who said after the Boulder shooting that she would not “blame society at large for the sick actions of one man and I will not allow lawbreakers to dictate the rights of law-abiding citizens.” And she is far from alone in her conference. While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he will force a vote on background checks, the legislation’s prospects of drawing the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster appear dim.

In Colorado as it is nationally, said Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado Republican Party chair and longtime party strategist, “It’s a complicated issue for both parties.”

“It’s a thorny issue in the suburbs for Republicans,” he said. “It’s a thorny issue for Democrats in the rural areas.”

Gun control, like almost everything else, took a back seat in last year’s elections to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and then-President Donald Trump’s handling of it. With fewer people gathering, public mass shootings were down last year, too, according to The Associated Press.

But as people have begun to reemerge in public, a gunman killed eight people at three Atlanta-area spas last week. On Monday, a shooter killed 10 people at a grocery store in Boulder — including at least one person who was in line for a vaccine. And for the first time in a decade, advocates of stricter gun laws had a Democratic president and a Democratic-controlled Congress — though narrowly in the Senate — to turn to.

“As we begin to emerge from Covid, there is this emerging sense of foreboding now among Americans … that what we’re going to return to is going to be constant headlines about gun violence,” Ambler said. “We can’t let that be the American experience. That can’t be how we as a nation emerge from the trauma of Covid. We can’t go reeling from pandemic to epidemic.”

He said, “In some way, shape or form, the Senate as an institution needs to respond to this crisis.”

Mathew Littman, a Democratic strategist and executive director of the gun reform group 97 Percent, said of universal background checks that “it’s ridiculous that it hasn’t happened. Absolutely ridiculous.”