Gun control advocates and Senate Republicans have long found themselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but some organizations are now considering backing members of the GOP who are instrumental in passing the first bipartisan gun legislation in nearly 30 years.
On Thursday, the Senate voted to advance the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act with support from 15 Republicans, teeing it up for passage by the end of the week. It’s a move that many Americans thought would never come after the congressional inaction following the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting.
The bill would close the so-called boyfriend loophole, provide grants to states incentivizing red flag laws and change background check systems to include additional scrutiny of juvenile records for buyers under 21. It would also set aside new spending for mental health treatment and school security.
GOP votes in favor of the bipartisan bill have been viewed as a political gamble for the 15 senators who have faced ugly criticisms from some of their Republican colleagues and gun lobbying groups in recent weeks. Over the weekend, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, one of the four lead negotiators of the deal, was booed at a Texas GOP convention after the state chapter rebuked him.
But while it may appear that Republicans are taking risky bets by backing the sweeping gun legislation, gun control groups are stepping up and backing their former opponents. Gun safety activists are signaling that the rapid growth of their organizations should tell politicians it could be wise to switch their loyalties from gun lobbyists to gun safety proponents.
“We have to show lawmakers when they do the right thing, we’ll have their back and when they do the wrong thing, we’ll have their job,” Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots movement against gun violence, told Newsweek.
Ten years after seeing a bipartisan bill from Senators Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin fail in the Senate, in part because of opposition from Democrats, Watts said Congress is a “completely different playing field.”
“There has been a seismic shift in American politics in that not a single Democrat has an ‘A’ rating from the NRA anymore, that Republicans, in growing numbers, are supporting gun safety,” she said.
The shift in Congress mirrors the support from Americans who favor stricter gun laws. Recent polling indicates that 70 percent of Americans think enacting new gun control laws should take precedence over protecting gun ownership rights, according to ABC News/Ipsos.
A poll conducted by USA Today/Ipsos earlier this month saw a double-digit increase in GOP support for stricter gun laws following the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas. Half of Republicans said they support more restrictions on guns, compared to 35 percent who said the same thing last year.
Polling from the Pew Research Center also indicated that 80 percent of Republicans back mental health restrictions on firearm purchases, and another 70 percent support universal background checks.
Since its founding, Moms Demand Action’s over 8 million members have grown the organization to become larger than the National Rifle Association (NRA), which touts nearly 5 million members. The group also outspent the NRA in 2018, helping Democrats flip the House later that year.
“As a movement, we have proven over the last 10 years that gun safety isn’t just good policy, but it’s also good politics,” Watts said.
Robin Lloyd, the managing director of the gun control advocacy group Giffords, said that the votes on this week’s legislation will prove that gun safety is “a winning issue,” and advocacy groups are promising to make sure it remains a top priority for Americans headed to the ballot boxes in November.
“All politicians, but especially Republicans, are going to see the political benefits of this issue,” she told Newsweek. “They’re going to be rewarded by their constituents.”
Cornyn’s steady approval rating is the first sign of support for Lloyd’s argument. Despite the backlash the senator has faced for working on the gun deal, the Texan has maintained his popularity at home.
A Morning Consult poll found that Cornyn’s approval rating of 43 percent among all Texan voters has remained unchanged since the Uvalde shooting that prompted the gun control push on Capitol Hill. Figures also haven’t changed among Republican voters, 68 percent of whom approve of his job performance.
While the survey found that his involvement in the gun safety bill led to a slight increase in disapproval among Republicans, from 11 to 17 percent, cutting into the segment of voters saying they previously held no opinion of the senator, it also led to a decrease in disapproval among Democrats from 61 to 58 percent.
When asked by Politico whether he believes his vote will affect his standing, Cornyn said he didn’t think so, but “I guess we’ll find out.”
Republican support for gun safety could also go a long way with young voters. For the roughly 24 million Gen Z voters across the nation, the bill would be the first major piece of gun legislation they’ve seen passed at the federal level.
Nearly two-thirds of Gen Z and millennial voters say they want to control gun violence, according to a new poll from NewsHour/NPR/Marist. Seventy-five percent also said that the recent mass shootings make them more likely to vote this November, compared to the 60 percent of those in the Silent Generation (people born between 1928 and 1945) and 66 percent of baby boomers who said the same.
“This is going to be the first thing that a lot of people who have been organizing around this will see for the first time,” Elena Perez, a 21-year old policy associate with March for Our Lives (M4OL), told Newsweek.
The bipartisan package, while meaningful for gun safety activists, has still been a compromise for those who had hoped to see Congress take bigger strides to tighten federal gun laws. The significance of the legislation has also raised concerns that it could be the last step forward that advocates may see for a while.
But Watts, Lloyd and Perez all expressed their optimism to Newsweek that this bill will not be the only chance lawmakers will have. Rather, it will be the moment they broke the logjam on the gun debate.
“Once lawmakers see that they can vote the right way and the sky won’t fall, that they can keep their job and that their constituents will reward them—which polling shows will absolutely happen on this issue—then they can move from baby steps to bigger steps,” Watts said.