The gun debate roadblock you might not expect: Swing states

·8 min read

They’ve fired rifles. They’ve loaded shotguns. They’ve staked claims to be the most “pro-gun” candidate running.

Throughout the primary election season, voters in the top Senate battleground states have been witness to a parade of Republican candidates trying to display their proficiency with guns and expressing their full-throated commitment to the Second Amendment.

It’s a backdrop that helps explain how even a tragedy as horrific as the mass shooting of children in a Uvalde, Texas, school seems unable to produce a consensus on how to respond to gun violence.

There’s little incentive for Republicans to change course now, national strategists say, particularly in swing states where gun ownership remains high and the GOP is riding a wave of momentum. Even Democrats in the most competitive Senate races this cycle — incumbents in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire — have shied away from articulating specific policy demands, instead offering vague suggestions that something should be done to protect children.

“I think it’s going to be a very rare purple-to-red state where one of your top paid communication messages with independents is guns, under any circumstance,” said John Rowley, a Democratic strategist with experience working on races in rural America. “It’s probably not going to be a lynchpin, decisive issue. That’s probably going to be something else.”

While Herschel Walker easily won the Republican nomination in Georgia on Tuesday, GOP candidates in Arizona, Nevada and New Hampshire are still battling through contested primaries. As condolences poured in Tuesday and Wednesday about the school shooting that left at least 21 dead, the two Republicans in the Nevada Republican Senate primary continued pumping out campaign tweets, but avoided mentioning the fatal shooting.

In statements provided to POLITICO, they stuck to similar messaging as other Republicans around the country who have been asked to address the issue: improve school safety measures and mental health services, but don’t touch guns. Adam Laxalt called for tapping billions of dollars in remaining federal coronavirus relief funds to harden security at schools, while Sam Brown said he wouldn’t support laws that would “adjudicate persons without due process,” but suggested increasing mental health services.


On Thursday, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who will face a competitive fight this fall in Wisconsin, dodged a question about whether he would support stiffer background checks.

“No matter what you do, people fall through the cracks … these are difficult issues,” Johnson said in a Fox Business interview. He said “the solution lies” in stronger families, faith and supportive communities, before pivoting to condemn the teaching of critical race theory in schools.

In Arizona, top Republicans vying for the Senate nomination told POLITICO they weren’t interested in talking about gun restrictions — an issue that is personal for Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, whose wife, Gabrielle Giffords, sustained serious injuries when, as a congresswoman, she was shot in 2011.

The state was rated the most gun-friendly state in the nation last year by Guns and Ammo magazine.

“Democrats have it exactly backwards — they want to outlaw our guns, as they free violent criminals and defund the police,” GOP Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters said in a statement. “We’re not going to ban guns — period.”

He continued by suggesting schools have armed and trained security guards and that society “actually fix the culture” so “fewer kids grow up in isolated, broken homes.”

Mark Brnovich, the Republican state attorney general running for Senate, said he hopes the country “will reflect on our humanity instead of racing to politicize such a heartbreaking tragedy.” A spokesperson for Jim Lamon, another top contender, did not respond to a request for comment, and Lamon has not addressed the shooting on social media.

The Arizona GOP field’s reluctance to talk about bipartisan gun reform efforts or other new restrictions comes as firearms have featured prominently in their campaigns. Lamon drew national attention in February after running a Super Bowl ad of him firing shots at stand-ins for Kelly, President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Masters, meanwhile, posted a campaign video last fall of him holding a short-barreled rifle.

“It wasn’t designed for hunting. This is designed to kill people,” Masters said in the video. “But if you’re not a bad guy, I support your right to own one.”

“I don’t think we’re going to see Republican primary candidates talk about trying to fix it,” said Chuck Coughlin, an Arizona-based GOP strategist, referring to gun laws. “I just don’t think it’s going to happen. Unless they’re acting completely out of conscience, I couldn’t see it being played to a political advantage.”

Within days of each other, Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidates Dave McCormick and Mehmet Oz released ads last month showing themselves firing guns — in both cases, shooting rounds using three different types of firearms.

The ads came as both candidates, political outsiders who moved back to Pennsylvania to run for the Senate seat, sought to prove their conservative bona fides to Republican voters in the face of intense attacks about their backgrounds.

Oz, in particular, was forced to distance himself from past comments made in favor of gun regulations, including banning semi-automatic weapons and implementing universal background checks and waiting periods.

The two candidates — who are engaged in an official recount after Oz took a narrow lead in last week’s primary election — each posted on social media that they were mourning those killed in the shooting, but stopped short of proposing any change in gun laws.

Though the state’s Democratic Senate nominee, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, went so far as to outline specific gun policy goals in a statement this week — calling for “universal background checks for all gun sales and a ban on military-grade assault weapons and high capacity magazines” — even Democrats acknowledge Pennsylvania has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the country.

When he was first running for Congress in 2018, Rep. Conor Lamb — whom Fetterman defeated in the state’s May 17 Democratic primary — included in his opening television ad a photo of himself shooting a rifle at a firing range.

“Still loves to shoot,” the narrator said of Lamb, after noting he had spent four years in the Marines.

The Senate’s most vulnerable Democratic incumbents this fall are refraining from specific calls to round up assault weapons or implement sweeping changes to federal firearm laws. Instead, they’re using measured language like “common sense” gun reform and “we must act” when speaking about the need to prevent future gun violence. While Kelly has previously expressed support for universal background checks, red flag laws and closing loopholes that allow domestic abusers to buy guns, the senator has so far held off from calling for specific policy proposals this week.

Justin Barasky, a strategist who most recently served as a senior adviser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said GOP candidates’ reluctance to discuss additional gun restrictions likely won’t single-handedly motivate undecided voters. But it “contributes to the growing problems Republicans have” with those voters, which also includes the party’s support for rolling back abortion rights.

“These types of things that Republicans are so widely out of step on, hurt them, I think, in swing areas — and it has in the past,” Barasky said. “It’s one of the reasons Republicans lost in 2020.”

Several national strategists contacted for this story — on both sides of the aisle — said it’s likely only a matter of time until the gun violence conversation blows over again. In their cynical view, swing-state Republicans are unlikely to face repercussions for keeping a low profile on the issue because inflation and economic concerns, meanwhile, remain a top priority for voters.

“One week it’s abortion, one week it’s guns. One week it’s something else,” said a Republican involved in Senate races. “At the end of the day, there are a lot of other issues that are going to be front and center.”

In recent years, however, support for some gun restrictions has appeared to work in some swing-state Republicans’ favor. In a tight reelection campaign in 2016, when polls showed Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) trailing his Democratic opponent at times, the Republican earned an endorsement from Kelly and Giffords’ anti-gun violence PAC. Their support came after he spearheaded a bipartisan gun reform bill that ultimately failed in the Senate.

Two years later, in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a series of gun control measures. A month later, Scott officially announced his challenge to Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a race he later won by one-tenth of a percentage point.

Though Scott initially drew heat from some Republicans — and from the National Rifle Association — for supporting the Parkland bill, he worked that year to repair his reputation on the right as a Second Amendment champion. By Election Day, he had also largely inoculated himself from criticism that he failed to act on gun violence.

In the current political environment, some strategists see limited gun reform measures like red flag laws — which give law enforcement the ability to seek a judge’s approval to seize firearms from someone in mental distress or who has threatened to harm others — as more attainable than most other prospective restrictions.

A vulnerable Democrat in a state like Arizona should seize on the issue relentlessly, Coughlin suggested, given the favorable polling surrounding a limited-scope policy to take guns from someone who has declared their intent to shoot others.

“Kelly could do it very effectively, because it’s going to be very popular with unaffiliated voters,” Coughlin said. “And probably popular with nearly a majority of the Republican electorate, except primary voters — depending on what you say.”