A group of Democratic lawmakers huddled Tuesday with representatives from several national gun-control organizations — a first-of-its-kind meeting aimed at finding ways to politicize the issue of gun-related violence ahead of congressional elections this fall.
For years, Democrats have struggled to balance calls from the party’s base to push for stricter gun-control laws with electoral realities that see the party struggling to maintain support in rural areas of the country, where support for gun rights is stronger — and where groups such as the National Rifle Association often succeed in attacking Democratic candidates.
But the recent shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., has exposed fissures in the GOP ranks, as several House and Senate Republicans are pushing to strengthen the national criminal background check system, supporting proposals to expand funding for mental health programs and even advocating for a ban on certain assault-style weapons.
“A lot of us have a feeling that 2018 is going to be the first year in which this issue is a true liability to Republicans who refuse to break from the NRA at all,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who organized the meeting. “We also want to make sure that all of these new entrants into the issue stick with us into the elections. I’ve never had a meeting like this before with that many members of Congress and every anti-gun-violence group.”
The meeting was held in a conference room at the headquarters of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but the location doesn’t signal that the campaign arm for Senate Democrats is organizing with the gun-control groups or endorsing whatever they might decide to do, Murphy said.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the chairman of the DSCC, attended the meeting and said it was designed “to look at those places where this would make the biggest difference.”
“We’re going to work to pass some meaningful steps now, but I think this is going to be a longer-term issue. So I felt it was important to sit down with the groups and understand what their thinking was,” he added.
Murphy, who is among the Democrats often mentioned as possible future presidential candidates, conceded that the subject of gun control remains tricky for incumbent Democratic senators seeking reelection this year in Republican-leaning states where President Trump won in 2016.
“Not every Democrat will run on banning assault weapons, but every Democrat should be running on background checks,” Murphy said. “Background checks is popular in every state and every congressional district. It’s a loser for Republicans everywhere. This is a universal political issue for Democrats — background checks is. I understand that when you go further down the list, you’re not going to have every Democrat running on the same issues that I’m running on.”
Murphy, a vocal opponent of current gun policy, is the lead sponsor of a modest measure designed to bolster the national gun background system. Deeply affected by the 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut that killed 26 people, he speaks frequently on the Senate floor about the need to enact new gun-control measures and is often among the first members of Congress to speak out after mass shootings.
The meeting was also attended by Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), plus Reps. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Robin L. Kelly (D-Ill.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), according to aides familiar with the gathering.
In an interview, Blumenthal described it as “a highly significant meeting because it charts a path forward to the elections, which will determine where we go on gun violence. The elections will be a critical turning point, and we’re creating a path to harness the enormous energy and passion that has been unleashed across the country, particularly among young people.”
“Never before has there been this kind of conversation so soon after a mass shooting — in a sense, it marks the emerging power of these grass-roots groups,” he added. “We’re looking to them for their networks and organization.”
Harris, Feinstein and Blumenthal are active sponsors of stricter gun-control laws. Feinstein is an original co-sponsor of legislation to ban assault-style weapons that passed in 1994, and she has been pushing for its reinstatement ever since it lapsed in 2004. Clark is a leader of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, while Esty, Deutch and Kelly’s districts have been the scene of gun violence in the past. Thompson leads a House Democratic working group that has spent years drafting proposals to fight gun-related violence.
At least four major organizations pushing for stricter gun-control laws also attended: Everytown for Gun Safety, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the group founded by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who survived a 2011 shooting.
A representative for Everytown said the group was represented at the meeting as part of its plans to build its outreach ahead of the elections. Since the Florida shooting, the group said it has held more than 600 events in response to growing interest nationwide.
Representatives for the other organizations didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
A congressional aide who attended the meeting said that Democrats believe that “we’re in a new period in the fight against gun violence, and this meeting was to recognize that the movement must approach elections with one voice. In order to beat the gun lobby, we need to be well funded, energized and united.”
Murphy, in addition to being the lead Democratic sponsor of the “Fix NICS” bill, and Senate Democrats are pushing for a broader debate on gun-control measures, including passage of legislation that would expand the background check system. Similar legislation failed to pass Congress in 2013 in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut.
Murphy said he expects fresh attempts to expand the background check system will fail.
“I have a feeling we’ll end up the way we always end up. I think the NRA, by and large, still owns this place, and it’s going to take an election to change that,” he said.
The senator credited students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland for jumping into the fray. “Their willingness to talk about the importance of elections has helped focus everybody on the most important thing, which is voting out of office people who refuse to break with the NRA.”
But what, if anything, might come of Tuesday’s meeting remains unclear.
“You could foresee joint endorsements or some kind of umbrella campaign,” Murphy said.
He added that Democrats have been frustrated in the past that groups pushing for stricter gun laws use different metrics to endorse candidates, target different races and can’t seem to agree on which legislation to support.
“I think we need to mount a very coordinated electoral effort so that, to the extent possible under law, the groups are all working under the same set of priorities, same set of targeting priorities,” he said.
Several Democratic senators not facing reelection this year and House Democrats in easier races are also eager to campaign on behalf of other Democrats willing to make gun control central to their campaigns.
“We want to develop a set of tools for members of Congress to use so a lot of members want to travel and support the anti-gun-violence movement. We’re going to try to make that happen,” Murphy said. “Some members have big online lists, but they’re reluctant to use it to support anti-gun-violence candidates because they’re not sure there’s a consensus of targeted races. So we’re going to try to develop that list.”