By Brad Brooks
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A U.S. advocacy group calling for tougher gun regulations said on Wednesday it will spend $8 million this year to support the campaigns of Texas politicians who back stronger restrictions on owning firearms.
Everytown for Gun Safety's Texas war chest far surpasses the $2.5 million the group spent last year in Virginia, where it played a pivotal role in helping elect politicians who campaigned for office on the promise of enacting stiffer gun regulations. In November, Democrats took control of the state legislature for the first time in a generation.
"This will be among the largest state investments ever made by Everytown," said Shannon Watts, founder of the Moms Demand Action group, the grassroots wing of Everytown. "We're investing in Texas because the state has one of the highest rates of gun violence in the country."
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Texas has 12.4 firearms deaths for every 100,000 people, exceeding the national average of 12.
Some Democrat contenders in Texas argue that years of high-profile mass shootings, including the August massacre of 22 people at a Walmart store in El Paso, have convinced them to directly confront opponents of stronger gun laws.
Gun control has emerged as one of the most divisive issues in U.S. politics. The National Rifle Association and other opponents of stricter regulations have fiercely resisted efforts to curb gun ownership, arguing that tighter restrictions violate the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of the right to bear arms.
Everytown said it would use its money for political advertising and call on upward of 400,000 supporters in the state to canvass neighborhoods and work phone banks for candidates.
The group said it would make a big push to get tens of thousands of new voters registered, and that most of its efforts would focus on the suburbs in the Dallas and Houston areas.
The top Everytown goal is to flip the Texas statehouse, as it helped to do in Virginia. While gun laws stall at the federal level, state lawmakers have taken the lead in passing more stringent laws across the United States in the wake of mass shootings at schools, churches and places of business.
To take control of the statehouse, Democrats need to retain all of their current seats and win nine now held by Republicans, a daunting challenge that most political observers say is unlikely but do not entirely rule out.
The state's bicameral legislature is comprised of a 31-member Senate and a 150-member House of Representatives.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Editing by Frank McGurty and Tom Brown)