Guns and burbs

Guns and the Suburbs

AWalter Head
January 23, 2020

This week, thousands of gun rights activists rallied in front of the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia to protest gun control legislation that has been working its way through the state legislature. Since winning control of the legislature last fall, Democrats have been able to pass previously stalled legislation including, as CNN reports, "background checks for private firearm transfers, limiting gun purchases to one handgun a month and allowing localities to ban firearms in public during a permitted event."

Not all that long ago, the idea that laws to restrict gun rights would not only pass the Virginia legislature, but would be broadly popular in the Commonwealth, was unthinkable. It was less than 20 years ago that Mark Warner ran for governor as a NASCAR-lovin' Democrat who wooed the NRA. As recently as 2009, Democrat Creigh Deeds, a state representative from rural Bath county who had a pro-gun legislative record, won the Democratic nomination for governor. 

The conventional wisdom back in the early part of the 2000s was that a Democrat could only get so far by running up the score in the more moderate suburbs of DC. That meant they had to appease the more rural areas of the state with an agenda that steered clear of talk of gun restrictions. What changed? In a nutshell, the suburbs. As suburban DC expanded further into once-rural areas of the state, issues like gun control have become an asset, not a liability to Democrats. Driving much of the change in support for gun restrictions are female suburban voters. 

The anti-gun violence group Giffords, founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords, has been laser-focused on these voters. A poll conducted by the Democratic polling firm Global Strategies for Giffords surveyed 1,500 likely 2020 suburban women voters in five states (Colorado, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas) this December on the issue of guns. Giffords released the polling memo to the Cook Political Report. It did not release the toplines, which means I did not get to see the specific questions in the poll. As such, I will only note their interpretation of the findings and not the numbers. 

The memo notes that "a clear majority of suburban women in these five states say a candidate's position on guns has become more important to their vote over the last couple years." Moreover, Democrats shouldn't think that they've 'maxed out' their support from suburban women. "Thus far, Democrats have benefitted from women increasingly prioritizing gun violence prevention when voting. But there are even more suburban women votes up for grabs when guns are the center of the debate…Even suburban women supporting Trump's reelection say they have become more supportive of stronger gun laws over the past couple years, not less." 

The Giffords group advice: spend less time talking about Trump the person and more about how "President Trump has tried to weaken current gun laws (rolling back regulations on access for the mentally ill; supporting allowing concealed carry permit holders in one state carry their gun in another state — even if they don't meet the requirements to carry in that state)."

Of course, this suggests that individual issues can break through in an election year where President Trump — not policy — continues to dominate the media narrative. And, even as suburban voters, especially white, female suburbanites, have helped turn suburban swing districts blue, the prospect of stricter gun laws passing Congress remains as challenging as ever. 

After traveling to Philadelphia last week to watch two focus groups of suburban Philadelphia women conducted by Giffords, I have a better understanding of the cross-pressures on these women on the issue of guns. While polling shows the American electorate overwhelmingly supports background checks, you can appreciate the complexity of this issue once you listen to voters grappling with it for a couple of hours. 

All the women chosen to participate in these focus groups were white, but they represented a cross-section of ages (age 30 to 72) and political ideologies (eight defined themselves as politically moderate, four as somewhat liberal, and five as somewhat conservative). Nine of the women either owned a gun or someone in their household did. I agreed not to use their names — only their ages. 

Almost all agreed that over the last few years, the conversation around guns had changed. Many pointed to the school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 as a turning point. "I grew up around guns," said one 30-year-old woman, "but now I feel worried, especially with a young child going to school." Another woman in her early 40s said, "obviously something has changed. 50 years ago it was different." 

When asked how they felt about guns before "things changed," all used terms like "calm," "neutral" or "safe." Many grew up around firearms and thought nothing of them. But, today, they are now "scared," "concerned" or "worried" about them. One woman in her late 50s, who described herself as somewhat liberal, said she was angry, "why do I have to not feel safe." Another said she has a "genuine fear that someone could be a mass shooter."

But, their growing concern for the issue of gun safety was also butting up against the reality of their lived experiences. 

One woman in her early 40s summed up this challenge well. She has lost two close friends to gun violence. She is frustrated that her young daughter has to participate in active shooter drills at school. She describes herself as a moderate who leans Democrat. She has family members who own guns. When asked by the moderator what elected officials can do to stem gun violence, she said: "sadly, I don't think there's a solution…If they [government] cracks down, it'll hurt responsible owners more than bad ones."

Many women in the room knew that the men in their lives who owned guns were wary of any efforts to restrict ownership of guns. And, that any attempt, even on something as popular as background checks, would be met with pushback by those men. 

Many were also coming to terms with so-called active shooter drills in schools. The specter of young children huddled under their desks, fearing an intruder, is something that many Democrats have used to promote stricter gun laws. What kind of a world are we living in, they say, when schools are no longer a sanctuary of safety for our kids? Sure, we teach our children what to do in case of a fire or tornado, but those are random acts of nature we can't control. We can — and should — be able to prevent our children from being victims of violence. 

However, a lot of these women have come to see active-shooter exercises as a 21st-century form of the school fire drill. While they expressed regret that children were being forced to hide under desks, or in one case, experience a full-on drill involving police and rubber bullets, they also expressed a sense of resignation and relief. 

A number of women described them as "sad but necessary." One said, "it is comforting the school is giving them knowledge. It's sad but at least they [the kids] will have a fighting chance" in the event a shooter enters their classroom. One woman, a 41-year-old who described herself as politically moderate, said she was "relieved" that her son was now "prepared." 

Mass shootings, especially those in and around places once considered off-limits to violence — schools, churches and synagogues — have changed the way the twenty Philadelphia-area women think about guns. When asked how frequently they thought about gun violence and mass shootings in the past, most said rarely or never. Today, they say they think about it daily or weekly. One woman replied: too much. Two of the women in the groups had lost a loved one to gun violence. 

Yet, these women also have little faith that there's much that can be done by legislators to get things back on track. They see the NRA as part of the problem, but also think bad parenting and a lack of community involvement in the lives of kids is just as liable. And, they worry that attempts to strengthen gun laws will only make those in their lives who own them, even more strident in opposing them.