Youth activists push gun control to forefront of 2020 campaign
LAS VEGAS — As a college student here, Micajah Daniels had grown increasingly concerned with the deep problems she saw in her city — racial injustice, economic inequality, and the ever-present threat of gun violence. But among her peers, there seemed more apathy than outrage.
Then in October 2017, a gunman firing from the window of a casino hotel slaughtered 58 people at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip. Suddenly, she said, people were paying attention. The mass shooting — the deadliest in US history — “brought a sense of community and it really took people back and made them think, ‘Is this going to happen again, and if so what can we do so it doesn’t?,’ ” said Daniels, 24.
Four months later, it did happen again, this time at a high school in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman with a semiautomatic rifle killed 17 people, most of them students. Now, she said, Americans — particularly young Americans who have come of age in an era of televised school carnage and terrifying active shooter drills — woke up to the issue.
“There is a switch and a change that is happening,” said Daniels, a student at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who has become a local leader in the campaign against gun violence. “A lot of people are becoming more motivated and more aware of how they can help.”
A new nationwide network of young activists such as Daniels, including some teenagers who aren’t old enough to vote, have helped elevate the issue of gun control in the 2020 presidential campaign.
“At the end of the day, we don’t want to get shot up in our school,” said Emilia Mason, a 16-year-old who attended a campaign rally for Kamala Harris at a Las Vegas community center last month. “I don’t want to go to school scared.”
An issue Democrats have, for decades, avoided like electoral poison in presidential campaign years is back on center stage. Candidates are being forced to answer detailed questions from voters about how they would curb gun violence. And some top contenders are staking out strong positions, including Harris, a California senator, who pledged as president to sign an executive order expanding background checks for gun purchasers, and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who wants to create a federal license for gun ownership.
Gun control is broadly popular in Democratic strongholds on the coasts and particularly in large cities that have been plagued by deadly shootings. But the issue historically has not played well in the Midwest, South, and interior West, regions with more hunters, a heritage of gun ownership, and a greater wariness of government that Republicans and the National Rifle Association have used to stoke fears of gun confiscation. Voters leery of gun control have tended to be more passionate in their politics than gun-shy Democrats, but the spate of school shootings, and the emerging militancy of younger voters, might be changing that dynamic.
“The student activism that emerged after Parkland tapped into something very deep in the American political psyche and was able to motivate voters in a way that I had not seen voters prioritize this issue,” said Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, who campaigned extensively for fellow Democrats during the 2018 congressional midterm elections and witnessed signs of the change.
Daniels is now a leader in the Las Vegas chapter of March for Our Lives, the national anti-gun-violence group started by the young Parkland survivors. This year, the group helped lobby for two major pieces of gun control legislation that passed in the Democratic-controlled Nevada Legislature, the first significant gun reforms since the 2017 shooting at the Harvest music festival.
“There were so many people that realized that this tragedy was at home,” said Daniels, the mother of a 4-year-old son. She will earn a bachelor’s degree in public health this year.
Now she is focused on the presidential election. Several of the campaigns have reached out to her group for feedback on their gun control policies. Some are strong, she said; others don’t go far enough.
“They’re at least being cognizant, they’re being aware, more so publicly, about getting those opinions from young folks. They’re being more intentional about reaching out to younger people,” she said.
Polls show that most Americans, including gun owners, support universal background checks on gun purchasers and have for years. Most voters also favor a ban on military-influenced semiautomatic weapons, but Congress has failed to pass legislation on either topic since the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired after 10 years.
For many young people, the issue is urgent because it is so personal. A poll conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics found that 58 percent of young Americans are concerned that gun violence will affect them or someone close to them. A similar Harvard poll last year found that 70 percent of people ages 18 to 29 believed gun laws should be more strict. That represented a 15-point increase from five years earlier, months after the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., when just 49 percent supported stricter laws.
Active shooter drills, to train students in how to react if a gunman enters their classroom, are a constant reminder of the potential danger. Shooting incidents in schools have been on the rise since 2011, with seven fatal attacks on schools in 2018, according to research by the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security.
March for Our Lives has chapters in 42 states so far, not only in Democratic areas and swing states such as Florida and Nevada but in deeply Republican places such as Kentucky. High school senior Sydney Cooper founded the first chapter there in March, in Fort Thomas, and now two more are active with another two in the works.
Those Kentucky chapters are involved in the state’s heated gubernatorial race this year, where an unpopular Republican governor, Matt Bevin, faces Democratic challenger Andy Beshear. While not endorsing a candidate, the young activists are holding voter registration drives, attending public events, and planning to visit rural parts of the state in upcoming months.
They expect young people will vote in record numbers this fall.
“If you give [young people] things like gun violence or things that affect their bodies then they’re going to care,” said Cooper, 18, who is now Kentucky state director for March for Our Lives.
Harris is one of a few Democratic presidential candidates who mentions gun violence prevention in her stump speech. A former prosecutor, she has said that if elected president Congress would have 100 days to pass a gun control overhaul including universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, and a repeal of laws that shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits. If it doesn’t, Harris promised to take executive action to implement universal background checks. She has also called for a ban on the import of assault weapons, and said she would revoke licenses of gun manufacturers that break the law.
At the rally in North Las Vegas, Harris blamed Congress’ inaction for the gun deaths.
“Is it that we are waiting for Congress to see a tragedy? No,” she said. “We’ve seen the worst human tragedies. Maybe they’re waiting for a good idea? Nope. All the good ideas have been had.”
“What is going on with Congress?” Harris asked. “It is simply this: They have not had the courage to act.”
Democrats have largely avoided campaigning on gun control after the experience of President Clinton. During his tenure, Congress passed the last two major pieces of gun control legislation — the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks and waiting periods, and a ban of assault weapons. But the reaction in the heartland to those laws contributed considerably to the Democratic Party’s loss of congressional majorities in 1994.
Gun politics are a wedge between Democrats and voters in regions the party needs to win to regain the White House and congressional majorities. And for decades, the financial and lobbying power of the NRA has outrun the efforts of gun control supporters.
But now, longtime gun control advocates say, youth activism and the threat of school shootings have pushed Democrats to address the issue with fervor. That, coupled with a leadership crisis besetting the National Rifle Association, advocates say, creates a powerful opportunity for stricter laws.
“The youth have put it into a very top-tier priority, not only for themselves but . . . in terms of the influence they have on other people in their household and communities,” said Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign, a group that has lobbied for tighter gun control for decades.
There is still a long climb. Gun control is not the top or second-most important issue for most voters, said Robert Spitzer, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Cortland who has written several books on gun policy. But gun control now cracks the top five, he said.
“It’s importance is greater than it has been and, yes, it is and can be a motivating force for some young people,” he said.
Spitzer said the typical gun-owning demographic — older white men — is dying off and gun culture has not been passed down to younger generations.
Still, the Democratic candidate who wins the party’s nomination will have to appeal to more moderate voters, many of whom feel strongly about gun rights. That will be difficult after a primary in which Democrats are trying to “out-flank” each other with “radical” gun control plans, said Mandi Merritt, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
“Voters across the country will see these proposals as more big government grabs on our constitutional rights and reject these ideas and candidates,” she said.
Those Democratic gun control views were on display in the first presidential debates last month.
Booker, the former mayor of Newark, said the issue is personal for him because of violence he has witnessed there.
“I think I’m the only one, I hope I’m the only one on this panel here, that had seven people shot in their neighborhood just last week,” he said on the first night of the June debates. “For millions of Americans this is not a policy issue, this is an urgency.”
Booker has one of the most detailed and liberal platforms on gun control, which includes a national licensing system for gun ownership and a ban on bump stocks, which allow semiautomatic rifles to fire like automatic weapons.
Some of the loudest voices on the issue are farther back in the Democratic field of candidates. Eric Swalwell, the California representative who dropped out of the race last week, had a plan that called for a national program in which the government would buy back assault weapons and suggested the government criminally prosecute anyone who refused to comply.
And John Hickenlooper, former Colorado governor, has also advocated for universal background checks, as well as a ban on high-capacity magazines, measures enacted in his state after the 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., that killed 12 people.
The growing power of the issue has showed itself most clearly in local elections. In the 2018 midterms, several Democrats ran on strong gun control platforms and won seats from Republicans. After the Democrats took control of the House this year, lawmakers passed a background check bill, the first major gun legislation in more than two decades. It is now stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.
In Colorado, first-time candidate Jason Crow, a Democrat, ousted five-term Republican Mike Coffman with a campaign that focused heavily on calls for stricter gun laws. The district includes Aurora.
Clark, the representative from Massachusetts and a member of the House Democratic leadership, campaigned for Crow. She said she was struck by how many volunteers in his race were from anti-gun-violence groups or were teachers motivated by their fears about school shootings.
“Even for the Democratic Party over the years, there’s been a hesitation to really engage with voters on this issue, to call it what it is, which is a public health crisis, and that has definitely changed,” Clark said.
Young people’s emerging fervor has made the issue urgent for some parents, too. The gun control group Moms Demand Action is coordinating with March for Our Lives and other groups and has a steady presence at presidential campaign rallies. In the midterms, the anti-gun-violence groups outspent the NRA, the behemoth of pro-gun lobbying that has recently been crippled by lawsuits, debt, and internal squabbling.
Lila Anna Sauls, of Columbia, S.C., said her 18-year-old son insisted they travel to Washington, D.C., for a March for Our Lives rally last year. Sauls was mesmerized by the passionate pleas for change in the speeches by the young students on stage. Her son, she said, just thought, “Duh.”
“They look at it from ‘What the heck is stopping y’all from putting gun laws in place?’ ” she said.
After the march, Sauls figured her son and his friends would forget about the cause. They haven’t. The teenagers now keep tabs on the policies of all the Democratic candidates and plan to vote in the primary.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Sauls said. “It gives me hope.”