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Gun debate takes center stage in midterm political ads

The gun debate increasingly is dominating the political ad wars, with the rate of commercials featuring the issue running twice as high as that of the last national election — and Second Amendment supporters remain firmly in control. Nearly 12 percent of all political ads run from the beginning of 2017 until now have mentioned guns, which is up from about 6 percent in the last two-year cycle, and up from just 1 percent during the 2012 campaign. Pro-gun messages also outstrip gun control themes, with 78 percent of ads this campaign favoring Second Amendment rights — a slight increase over the last couple of cycles, according to a study from the Wesleyan Media Project. The disparity comes even as gun control groups have vowed to go on the offensive, hoping to use a series of mass shootings over the last year to recruit an army of voters fed up with the violence and willing to back stiffer laws on access to firearms.

Nearly 12 percent of all political ads run from the beginning of 2017 until now have mentioned guns, which is up from about 6 percent in the last two-year cycle, and up from just 1 percent during the 2012 campaign.

Pro-gun messages also outstrip gun control themes, with 78 percent of ads this campaign favoring Second Amendment rights — a slight increase over the last couple of cycles, according to a study from the Wesleyan Media Project.

The disparity comes even as gun control groups have vowed to go on the offensive, hoping to use a series of mass shootings over the last year to recruit an army of voters fed up with the violence and willing to back stiffer laws on access to firearms.

“It was a bit surprising to me, but by the same token I think, historically, the gun rights side has had more money to spend on advertising that would fall into the count of this study, and they would probably be more widespread,” said Robert Spitzer, a professor at the State University of New York College at Cortland who has written several books on gun policy.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said the louder the gun debates, the better Second Amendment supporters do.

“Gun owners are going to go to the polls, and the harder you push this issue the more they’re going to show up and vote on that one key issue,” Mr. Van Cleave said. “The other side just historically doesn’t turn out on it.”

Most of the campaign ad season still looms ahead of the elections in November. But a series of special congressional elections in red states like Alabama, Montana and Kansas seem to have driven the spending so far, with candidates in both parties trying to reassure voters they support gun rights, according to the study from the Wesleyan Media Project.

That was true in Pennsylvania’s special election last week, in which Democrat Conor Lamb, who held a slim lead with some ballots still to be counted, tried to defuse gun attacks by running ads with him firing an AR-15 rifle at a gun range. The narrator notes that he “still loves to shoot.”

Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said Republicans also may have bungled the issue when a GOP-aligned political action committee sent out a mailer to Democratic households touting Mr. Lamb’s gun-rights stance.

Mr. Pratt said that could have helped Mr. Lamb in the district.

“Do Republicans not realize the power of the gun rights issue? Does the leadership not understand the power of supporting a cause that energizes single-issue, pro-gun voters in BOTH PARTIES?” Mr. Pratt wrote to members of Congress last week.

The Wesleyan Media Project study looked at ads in federal and gubernatorial races on broadcast television, national network, and national cable buys. It found more than 56,000 airings with references to guns from Jan. 1, 2017, through March 12 of this year.

Nearly 45 percent of those ads favoring Democrats this cycle feature pro-gun rights messages, compared to about 20 percent in 2016 and 33 percent in 2014.

The jump seemingly runs counter to President Obama’s multiple calls for gun control advocates to become “single issue” voters, even as recent polls in the wake of last month’s Florida high school shooting have shown an uptick in public support for stricter gun controls.

A Marist poll released about a week after the shooting also showed that 77 percent of Americans who say a candidate’s position on guns will have a major influence on their vote in the midterms want stricter laws.

But support for gun controls has spiked after previous shootings, then dissipated over time — while Second Amendment advocates remain committed.

“The majority of the energy in the gun debate has consistently resided on the pro-gun side,” Mr. Pratt said. “And politicians ‘shoot themselves in the foot’ when they forget that single-issue, pro-gun voters are motivated to vote solely on how candidates stand on Second Amendment issues.”

Gun control backers vow this time is different, after police say a 19-year-old former student used an AR-15-style rifle to kill 17 students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14.

“[The] American public is really putting Congress on notice: act or the voters will vote you out,” said John Feinblatt, president of the group Everytown for Gun Safety.

Everytown is partnering with liberal billionaire activist Tom Steyer’s NextGen political group and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ organization as part of a million-dollar campaign to try to get high schoolers registered to vote this year. The initiative is set to launch Sunday — one day after the March for Our Lives mass demonstration organized in part by Stoneman Douglas students.

Mrs. Giffords’ group also has announced a handful of congressional Republicans — including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan — that it plans to target with TV and digital advertising, paired with on-the-ground advocacy and voter registration efforts.

Mr. Spitzer said that even with the Parkland shooting still fresh in people’s minds, the gun control side has a long way to go to make it a prominent voting issue that doesn’t backfire by stirring up the gun-rights crowd.

“I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but I think there’s the possibility that it could play a bigger role, and that support for stronger gun measures could elbow its way more prominently as a key issue,” he said.

He said the student pressure was instrumental in cajoling Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican governor to enact the recent law that raised the minimum purchasing age for most rifles in the state from 18 to 21, provided for new court orders to keep guns from potentially dangerous people, and cleared the way for more non-teacher faculty to carry guns in schools.

“The big question is whether anything resembling that could become a factor in the fall elections, and that depends on the durability and the persistence of the movement,” Mr. Spitzer said. “It’s a hard slog just based on past experience, but I think the door’s open for that to happen.”


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