A closer look at the gun control lobby's midterm messaging

With Republicans enjoying a double-digit lead among voters when it comes to which party is better at handling violent crime, the gun control lobby is desperately hoping to aid their anti-gun allies in the Democratic Party by providing them with focus group-tested talking points for the campaign trail and TV advertisements. As POLITICO reports, however, even some Democratic operatives admit that their candidates are better off not bringing up the issue at all.

According to POLITICO, Michael Bloomberg’s pet gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety launched a massive project earlier this summer to test out various gun control messaging among 18,000 likely voters, and they’re now eagerly sharing the results with anti-gun candidates around the country. Even if the campaigns themselves choose not to adopt the group’s recommendations, Everytown has indicated it will use this messaging itself in third-party campaign advertisements attacking Republicans for supposedly being soft on crime because they don’t support gun control.

Some Democrats are already deploying a similar strategy to defuse crime as a GOP attack on them, starting with President Joe Biden. Last month, Biden sought to wrest the moral high ground on crime from “MAGA Republicans,” arguing in one speech in Pennsylvania: “Don’t tell me you support law enforcement if you won’t condemn what happened on [January] 6th,” citing the insurrection on the Capitol. He condemned calls for “defunding the FBI,” after federal investigators searched former President Donald Trump’s estate for classified documents.

Tying gun safety, crime and law enforcement together aims “to reset that narrative” that have traditionally put Democrats on the defense, said Charlie Kelly, a senior political adviser to Everytown. That was especially true in 2020, when slogans like “defund the police,” which were popular among activists on the left but not among voters in general, were wielded against Democrats in races around the country.

“The fear tactics that they had success with in 2020, I don’t think will work this time around,” Kelly continued. “We actually are the ones that are tough on these issues, and we need to be more vocal about it.”

The problem with that argument is that Democrats seem far more interested in criminalizing a constitutionally-protected right to keep and bear arms than in actually going after violent criminals or funding the police. Don’t forget that just last month House Democrats voted to ban the future sale and purchase of modern sporting rifles and “large capacity” magazines while simultaneously blocking a vote to increase federal grants to local police departments. Chris Murphy just killed a bill to improve access to mental health treatments and improve school security, though he’s always more than happy to vote for (and sponsor) laws aimed at legal gun owners.
Still, Kelly and his anti-gun cohorts at Everytown say they’ve hit on a message that they believe can neutralize the GOP’s advantage with voters when it comes to crime.

In the memo describing the findings of its research project, Everytown tested messages that linked a candidate who “opposes background checks on all gun sales and supports permitless carry” with “violent criminals can buy a gun with no questions asked.” Compared to a control group, swing voters who saw that message moved 5 points toward Democratic candidates.

Another test, on keeping weapons out of the hands of domestic abusers, also saw a 4.7-point Democratic bump among swing voters over the control group.

“This idea that law enforcement messaging can be weaponized against Republicans is not new, but it’s something we’d shied away from for a long, long time. And I’d be very interested to see how that works in real time,” said Jason McGrath, a Democratic pollster.

That may have moved the needle a few points in focus group testing, but that doesn’t mean those results will translate to the real world. First, the GOP advantage over Democrats on crime and public safety is generally a lot larger than five points. POLITICO points to a recent NBC poll showing Republicans with a 23-point lead on the issue, and a new poll of the Texas governor’s race found Greg Abbott to be far more trusted than Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke on handling violent crime, with 45% saying Abbott would do a better job compared to just 31% for O’Rourke.

But I’ll also bet that those focus groups weren’t exposed to any Republican messaging on the issue either, and the hypothetical campaign ad that was supposedly so convincing is easy enough to refute by simply exposing what’s happened in states like New Mexico, where the Democratic majority in the legislature and the Democratic governor have instituted both universal background checks and “red flag” laws (two pro-gun control policies that Everytown says are effective messaging tools) in the past few years. Violent crime, sadly, has continued to increase, especially in Democratic strongholds like Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is already adopting the Everytown strategy of falsely claiming that her opponent wants to defund the police in order to distract from the failures of her anti-gun agenda. GOP gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti would be wise to hit back at Grisham’s smear as well as highlight the fact that none of her gun control victories have made the state any safer. In fact, I’d point out that she actually made it harder for law-abiding citizens to exercise their Second Amendment rights by ordering gun stores to shut down in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Democrats like Michelle Lujan Grisham believe that the best way to protect the public is to make it harder for them to protect themselves; that with enough restrictions on law-abiding citizens we’ll see some trickle-down effect on violent predators. That’s a tough sell in the average election environment, but at a time when violent crime is at record-high levels in Democratic bastions like Philadelphia and Portland, Oregon it’s going to be even harder to persuade swing voters that the best way to tackle violent crime is to target legal gun owners and law-abiding citizens instead of focusing on the violent criminals themselves.