For the first time in a generation, Democrats are betting they’re on the winning side of the gun issue.
On Tuesday, Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head at a 2011 Tucson rally, and her husband, Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut, begin barnstorming election battlegrounds, including those with a strong gun culture, like Iowa, Virginia and North Carolina, in a 14-state tour that goes through Election Day.
“It’s not a coincidence,” Kelly said in an interview with USA TODAY on why the couple selected the states it did. The two will begin the “Vocal Majority Tour” in Orlando, along with survivors and family members of victims of the June 12 shooting at the Pulse night club, members of Congress and the Human Rights Campaign.
The tour includes rallies, roundtables, press conferences and voter registration events, according to Giffords’ nonprofit advocacy group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, in which the duo will promote Clinton's agenda for stronger background checks and highlight Republican Donald Trump's record on the issue.
"The vocal majority of Americans who support change that reduces gun violence need to stand up and speak out," Giffords said in a statement. "We're going to do all we can to ensure 2016 is remembered as the tipping point: the year that Americans voted to prevent gun tragedies."
For nearly a generation, since passage of the 1994 assault weapons ban was seen as contributing to Democrats' loss of control of the House, politicians have often shied from outwardly campaigning for tighter gun laws.
This year, however, Hillary Clinton promised gun-control advocates she wouldn’t abandon them in the general election, while also making clear she supports the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Still, it’s unclear whether she’ll join Giffords and Kelly for a public rally like she did in the primary, potentially underscoring the sensitive nature of their mission. While Clinton has designated the two as leading surrogates, the group is not formally affiliated with the Clinton campaign.
Kelly acknowledged the difficulty in winning over skeptical gun owners, many of whom believe Clinton ultimately wants to repeal the Second Amendment. It’s something her Republican competitor, Donald Trump, often contends despite the claim being rated false by fact-checking groups.
As gun owners, Kelly believes he and his wife are uniquely suited for the role. “When I’m standing on a table in North Dakota, I’m looking for a guy in the crowd that looks like the gun owner believing those things,” said Kelly. On the contrary, he said, Clinton has emphasized that it’s a right granted in our Bill of Rights.
“If you’re a domestic abuser, yeah, it could impact you in a negative way as an individual and in a positive way for society,” he said of the new gun laws.
The 2016 election is the first presidential campaign since 20 school children and six adults were slaughtered in Newtown, Conn., just weeks after President Obama won reelection in 2012.
While Obama failed to advance even modest legislation to expand firearm background checks through Congress, a new infrastructure of advocacy groups has risen in the ashes of that defeat. This includes Giffords’ group, as well as Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit formed to match the power of the National Rifle Association.
The NRA still looms large in electoral politics — it’s already spent $11.5 million in the 2016 cycle. However, there are reasons to believe campaigning on guns may carry less risk for Democrats than once thought.
New research shows a declining number of gun households. While there’s been a 71% increase in the number of handguns in the United States over the past 20 years, they’re in the hands of fewer voters, according to a new study by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern universities.
The percentage of the population owning guns decreased from 25% in 1994 to 22% last year. Half of them were in the hands of just 3% of American adults, so-called “super owners” who possessed an average of 17 guns each.
There’s also overwhelming public support for at least some action on gun safety.
Ninety-three percent of Americans support background checks for all gun buyers, including 90% of Republicans and 93% of independents, according to a June Quinnipiac survey that found a similar level of support for barring individuals on the FBI’s watch list from purchasing firearms.
The new effort from Giffords and Kelly takes place in Orlando — where 49 people lost their lives to a gunman wielding a semiautomatic rifle — to highlight the disconnect between the nation’s gun laws and public opinion. Kelly also wants to highlight Trump's rhetoric and positions.
“He is beyond any sense of reasonableness on this issue. He is to the right of the National Rifle Association,” Kelly said. He based this in part on Trump’s comment that having more guns in the Orlando night club with “bullets flying in the opposite direction” would have prevented the massacre.
While the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, had been taken off the terror watch list, keeping him on it would have done nothing to prevent him from obtaining the semiautomatic rifle which he’d legally purchased.
It is revelations like these changing public opinion in favor of tightening current U.S. laws, said Kelly. He cited New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican who recently expressed support for background checks after coming under fire in an ad sponsored by Kelly’s group that highlighting her April 2013 vote against expanding background checks to gun shows and the Internet.
“We’re moving people in the correct direction on this,” he said. "We’re hopeful that Lester Holt will have a question on this tomorrow night," Kelly said, referring to the moderator of the Monday night debate at Hofstra University.