Gun control barely an issue as US elections near
SEATTLE — The latest U.S. school shooting claimed the lives of two students and the teenage shooter less than two weeks before congressional and statewide elections. It barely made a ripple in the final days of campaigning.
Candidates nationwide have largely ignored the issue of gun control ahead of the Nov. 4 election. Democrats facing an uphill battle to save their Senate majority from a Republican takeover have been unwilling to take up a divisive matter that could alienate many voters.
Nobody knows this better than Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who has become a leading gun control activist since she was shot in the head at a political event four years ago.
Not a single candidate in the midterm elections appeared with Giffords as she made her way from Maine to Washington state over 10 days to advocate for tougher laws.
“If this happened in March or December or any other time, we’d have asked other politicians to join,” said Marti Anderson, an Iowa state lawmaker who helped organize a Giffords event in Des Moines, Iowa. “But it’s risky 15 days before an election.”
It’s a far cry from the atmosphere following the December 2012 massacre of 20 children and six educators at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. In the outpouring of shock and outrage that followed, pro-gun control politicians and activists had hoped the time was right for stricter laws. But months later, President Barack Obama failed to push through Congress a plan for broader background checks for gun purchases, along with proposals for a ban on military-style assault rifles and limits on ammunition capacity.
Since then, there have been numerous shootings at schools and other public places but gun control proponents have been unable to regain any momentum.
Americans are deeply split on the issue of gun ownership. Some, especially in urban areas, favor strict laws similar to those in many European countries. On the other end of the spectrum, gun rights advocates argue shootings only prove the need for law-abiding citizens to own firearms to protect themselves, including teachers in schools. Restricting gun ownership is a complicated legal matter because of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which gives citizens the right to own firearms.
Gifford’s latest appearance was in Seattle, just two days before a 15-year-old high school student shot and killed two people and himself in an attack north of the city.
Giffords, who struggles with speech, stumbled as she delivered the same 64-word speech she had made eight times on her tour.
“Together, we can win elections,” Giffords said before starting to stumble. After a moment of confused silence, an aide whispers the next line, and Giffords continued the broken sentence: “… change our laws.”
As Giffords visited nine states in the past two weeks, the country’s most powerful pro-gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, was working in at least 30, with advertising and get-out-the-vote manpower, to strengthen its position in Washington and state capitals. She will be widely outspent this year by the NRA and others who support the rights of gun owners.
With the Senate majority at stake, Giffords isn’t running television ads in states where Democratic incumbents are seeking re-election, among them North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana and New Hampshire.
“Long, hard haul,” Giffords told The Associated Press in a brief interview after her Seattle event, using one of the short phrases that now dominate her speech.
The exception is Iowa, where her group announced plans this week to run television ads against Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst. “Joni Ernst won’t vote to close the loophole that lets some dangerous people still get guns,” Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald says in the ad set to run through Election Day.
The NRA has spent more than $27.3 million this year on elections in at least 27 states through Oct. 15, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Giffords’ organization, by contrast, has spent just $6.6 million in seven states.
The financial advantage is just one piece of the NRA’s strength.
“Anyone who tries to gauge the National Rifle Association by money alone is making a huge mistake,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam, citing 5 million dues-paying members and many more voters who look to his organization for guidance on how to vote on Election Day.
Arulanandam said he’s grateful that Giffords is “on the mend and getting better every day,” but he criticized her political goals, saying she is ultimately after “draconian gun control.”
Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, have gone to great lengths to rebut such criticism. Recently, with little sign that an effort to adopt universal background checks will pass in Congress, Giffords has focused on promoting a measure that would prevent convicted stalkers and abusive “dating partners” from accessing guns.
In a letter opposing the measure, the NRA says it “manipulates emotionally compelling issues such as ‘domestic violence’ and ‘stalking’ simply to cast as wide a net as possible for federal firearm prohibitions.”
While the mood was largely positive during Giffords’ tour, the frustration they’re not connecting with voters this election season was evident.
“It’s hard not to be, as a person in this country, disappointed by the lack of response,” Carusone said. “But we’re not surprised. We knew this wouldn’t be easy.”
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