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Opinion: Will the Marches Make a Difference?

Marches are where change can start, but elections are where the change happens

A group from Pittsburgh marches down the West Front of the Capitol on Saturday to join the student-led “March for Our Lives,” calling for action to prevent gun violence. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A group from Pittsburgh marches down the West Front of the Capitol on Saturday to join the student-led “March for Our Lives,” calling for action to prevent gun violence. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The National Rifle Association went into the 1994 midterm elections with a plan: Target politicians who had voted for that year’s crime bill.

A Washington Post story just before Election Day detailed a granular and aggressive plan inside the NRA to unseat anyone who had failed to support the group’s position on the landmark legislation pushed by President Bill Clinton that included a ban on new sales of some assault weapons.

The targets included some of the chambers’ most powerful Democrats — House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, House Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks of Texas, and Senate Budget Chairman Jim Sasser of Tennessee, who had designs on succeeding retiring Majority Leader George J. Mitchell.

Also on the list were Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper, who was running against actor Fred Thompson for an open Senate seat, New Hampshire Rep. Dick Swett, who had to campaign in a bullet-proof vest after receiving death threats over his vote for the crime bill, Georgia Reps. George “Buddy” Darden and Don Johnson, and Washington Reps. Jay Inslee and Mike Kreidler.

When the votes were counted, every one of those members lost, and they were far from alone. The Democrats lost a net of 54 seats in the House, and eight in the Senate, thanks in no small part to the mobilization and turnout the NRA leadership and members planned, paid for, and delivered on. (The GOP gained a ninth Senate seat when Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby switched parties the day after the election.)

‘Vote Them Out:’ Thousands March on Washington to Protest Inaction on Gun Violence

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Nearly 25 years later, the downfall of those members still looms over any conversation about changing gun laws. (“Don’t forget the crime bill.”) But seeing hundreds of thousands of students and parents mobilize over the weekend at the “March for Our Lives” rallies, you have to wonder if the tide on the gun issue is turning.

We now know that gun safety supporters can seriously organize a march. But can they also change an election? It’s the last and most important question we don’t have an answer for yet.

‘A defining issue’

One group that has been studying the 1994 midterms is Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, the advocacy organization founded by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, retired Navy captain and astronaut Mark Kelly. 

“We definitely feel like that this is our year to have that moment,” the group’s political director Isabelle James told me. “It’s the first year since 1994 when gun safety will be a defining issue in a completely different way than they were back then.”

Giffords’ group, previously known as Americans for Responsible Solutions, is teaming up with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety and a coalition of formal and informal activists to pour tens of millions of dollars into the midterms to reward members they think have supported gun safety measures and punish those who haven’t.

The ones they see as most vulnerable are Reps. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., and Mike Coffman, R-Colo., whose district includes Aurora; Republican Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada; and even Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott if he decides to get into the Senate race against Sen. Bill Nelson. The districts that the groups are focused on cut across all geographic and partisan lines, but suburban Republican districts in Southern California and Nevada fill out their target lists.

While each group has its own process, Kris Brown, the co-president of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the Brady Campaign will score members of Congress on specific bills and votes just like the NRA does going into the midterms. “We’ll rate members and issue a report that calls out the best of the best and the worst of the worst,” she said, adding that bills on private sale loopholes and expanded background checks are among the ones they’ll be watching.

Giffords’ group will also target members who have voted in favor of NRA priorities, such as concealed carry reciprocity, while its campaign arm will support allies with contributions. Everytown for Gun Safety will circulate questionnaires to members and challengers and release the results, along with endorsements and target lists.

Early indicators

Asked whether the gun issue could swing an election toward a candidate who supports stricter gun laws the same way 1994 swung the pendulum in the opposite direction, gun safety groups say it’s already happening. They point to last year’s governor’s race in Virginia, where exit polls ranked guns as the No. 2 issue, and Democrat Ralph Northam, a former Army doctor, won by nearly 10 points after he spoke frequently about his response to the Virginia Tech shooting. Among voters who said gun issues were most important, Northam won 57 percent to 43 percent.

In the days leading up to his surprise victory in southwestern Pennsylvania, Democrat Conor Lamb didn’t stay away from the gun issue either, and even ran an ad touting his support for stricter background checks. The gun issue may or may not have won the race for him, but it didn’t lose the race for him in a district that had gone for President Trump by nearly 20 points a year earlier.

“For the first time in a long time, voters are connecting the gun safety issue to elections,” said James, the political director at Giffords’ group. “And they’re realizing that even when Congress has not taken action, they can.”

Whether voters looking for more gun safety will register, turn out and vote in enough force to cost members their seats is the biggest and most important wildcard question of 2018. Marches are where change can start, but elections are where the change happens. If change doesn’t happen after this year of marches and mobilization, it’s hard to imagine when it ever could.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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