The 2018 midterm elections may have exposed a shift on gun control

Gun control advocates didn’t get every win they wanted, but there were some big victories.

Gun control advocates didn’t get all the wins they were hoping for on Election Day, but all in all, the 2018 midterm elections were pretty good for supporters of stronger gun laws.

First, the one statewide ballot initiative regarding guns, which strengthened Washington state’s gun laws by curtailing access to assault rifles, won. That’s not exactly shocking in a liberal state, but it’s a notable victory nonetheless — one that the National Rifle Association (NRA) is certainly not happy with.

That’s not the end of the story, though. Gun control advocates also poured a lot of time and money into specific candidates. They saw some wins in this area, particularly in the House and governor’s mansions, and some losses, especially in the Senate. But even in some of the losses there are promising signs for gun control advocates that they may be closing the political intensity gap that has long held them down.

Alex Yablon and Daniel Nass at the Trace highlighted the House wins: “Democrats earning F ratings from the NRA for their views on gun laws prevailed not only in increasingly bluish swing states such as Virginia, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Colorado, but also in conservative strongholds like South Carolina and Kansas.”

These were Democrats running strongly on guns. One of the victorious Democrats, Jason Crow, “became the poster boy for proudly pro-gun reform Democrats in twin late-season articles in the New York Times (‘Bearing F’s From the NRA, Some Democrats Are Campaigning Openly on Guns’) and Washington Post (‘Suburban Democrats Campaign on Gun-Control Policies as NRA Spending Plummets’) summing up the new political dynamic in swing state suburbs,” Yablon and Nass wrote.

It didn’t go quite as well for gun control advocates in the Senate, where candidates with strong NRA support won in Indiana, Missouri, and Tennessee.

But even in some of the Senate Republican victories, there is good news for gun control advocates.

In Florida, Republican Rick Scott, a foe of gun control advocates and especially Parkland activists, seems to be on track to defeat Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson (although the race appears set to go to recount). That would normally seem like bad news for gun control advocates, given that Nelson is more supportive of stronger gun laws.

But this was complicated by the NRA’s recent turn on Scott, who is currently Florida’s governor. After the Parkland school shooting, Scott signed a slew of measures that strengthened the state’s gun laws. The measures were by no means groundbreaking — merely raising the minimum age to buy guns from 18 to 21 and adding a waiting period for firearm purchases. But they were significant enough to get the NRA to pull back its support for Scott, even downgrading him in their candidate scorecard from an A+ to a C.

Yet Scott may have won the Senate race anyway. That’s despite the fact that polls suggested Nelson was the favorite, and Nelson was, after all, the Senate incumbent.

Meanwhile, gun control advocates saw a big loss in the Florida governor’s race but saw significant gubernatorial pickups in other states. Yablon and Nass at the Trace explained: “The [Democratic Party] gained seven governorships, including in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker was bounced despite $1+ million in support from the NRA. Nevada’s Steve Sisolak is the first Democrat elected governor there since 1994. He defeated state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who became a burr for gun reform groups when he kept a ballot referendum creating universal background checks going into force.”

Another one of the races where gun control advocates did not see a victory is telling. Although it’s liberal in many other ways, Vermont, a rural state, has long been resistant to stronger gun laws. But after the Parkland shooting, Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, signed a gun control package into law that expanded background checks and lets officials take guns from people deemed at risk for violence, among other changes.

The NRA, which previously backed Scott in Vermont, was furious, downgrading him from an A rating to a D. “This governor in Vermont completely gave a one-finger salute to the Constitution and to gun owners,” NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch said at the time. “He is no friend of firearm owners, and I hope that all firearm owners remember this betrayal the next time he’s up for reelection.”

Scott beat the Democratic challenger, Christine Hallquist, anyway.

In both of the Florida and Vermont races, gun control advocates, and especially Democrats, would have very much preferred a different outcome.

But another way to look at these races is that these Republicans could have seen a revolt from gun owners on the NRA’s behest — and they didn’t. To me, this signifies a change, if a temporary one, in America’s gun politics: Outrage from gun rights advocates wasn’t enough to doom Republicans in major elections.

This gets to a key problem in US politics about guns. Polls have long shown that a majority of American voters, even Republicans, support stronger gun policies, but there’s long been an intensity gap. Essentially, even though more Americans support gun control laws, those on the side opposing stricter measures have long been more passionate about the issue — more likely to make guns the one issue they vote on, more likely to call their representatives in Congress, and so on.

As Republican strategist Grover Norquist said in 2000, “The question is intensity versus preference. You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favor of some gun controls. But are they going to vote on their ‘control’ position?” Probably not, he suggested, “but for that 4-5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this.”

Rick Scott and Phil Scott’s wins, along with the gun control advocates’ victories elsewhere, show that may not be so true anymore, or at least wasn’t the case in the 2018 midterms.

So election night wasn’t a clean sweep by gun control advocates. But overall, it was good.

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