Suburban voters pressure Republicans on gun control

In the wake of mass shootings, once-steady suburban voters concerned for their children's safety are calling for Republicans to pass stricter gun laws.

Jonathan J. Cooper/AP
Feeling pressure from shifting suburban voter preferences, Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz. – once a staunch Second Amendment supporter – has signaled a willingness to adopt stricter gun laws, Aug. 15, 2019.

Following the news has grown stressful for Angela Tetschner, a 39-year-old nurse raising four children in this sprawling Phoenix suburb of tile roofs, desert yards, young families, and voters who are increasingly up for grabs.

"Sometimes I do think about the school shootings," said Ms. Tetschner, who doesn't pay much attention to politics but has been disappointed in President Donald Trump, days after sending her 5-year-old boy to kindergarten. She'd like to see Congress tighten gun laws, but her expectations for action are low.

"You can't not put your kid in school," she said. "I just hope and pray that nothing happens."

Ms. Tetschner's worries are weighing heavy on Republicans in Arizona and elsewhere in the wake of recent mass shootings. The party has seen once-reliable suburbs turn competitive as women worry about their children's safety and bristle at Mr. Trump's harsh rhetoric on race and immigration, and they embraced Democratic alternatives in last year's midterm elections.

GOP candidates looking ahead at tough races increasingly are eyeing new ways to address anxieties about gun violence, and to do that without crossing the party's base, which sees gun restrictions as an infringement on the constitutional right to bear arms.

"Republicans' backs are already against the wall among suburban voters, particularly college-educated women," said Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant. "And the inability of our political system to pass what most Americans see as commonsense reforms related to gun violence only makes the matter worse."

That tension is palpable in Arizona, a state with an ardent gun culture as well as a growing population of newcomers seeking sun, jobs, and affordable housing in the suburbs that ring Phoenix.

Republican Sen. Martha McSally's challenge is to navigate that divide. The freshman senator is facing a difficult reelection fight, probably against Democrat Mark Kelly, a former astronaut who became a prominent gun-control advocate after his wife, then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head in an attempted assassination in Tucson in 2011.

While gun control often fades from the conversation weeks after a high-profile shooting, the issue is likely to be a steady presence in this race, but not determine the outcome by itself. "It's a part of their decision-making process, but it's only a part of it," said David Winston, a Republican pollster who advises GOP congressional leaders.

Pressure on Ms. McSally has been evident since shootings in California, Texas, and Ohio. She has adopted a softer tone and spoken forcefully against hate and domestic terrorism. A vocal supporter of gun rights who once called universal background checks unconstitutional, Ms. McSally now says she is open to talking about new gun laws. She also says she intends to introduce legislation to make domestic terrorism a federal crime.

"We all need to do our part, whether there's a federal element, a state element, a society element," Ms. McSally told reporters in Phoenix on Thursday. "Let's figure out what we can do that's meaningful, that's thoughtful, that's not political theater in order to stop these crimes."

McSally's message echoes what other Republicans are saying.

After two shootings killed 31 people in less than 24 hours, Mr. Trump started talking about tougher background checks on gun buyers and prominent Republicans expressed support for laws that make it easier for authorities to seize weapons from people deemed suicidal or dangerous. Police in Connecticut, Florida, and Ohio recently arrested three men threatening mass shootings of their own. 6

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a longtime opponent of gun control laws, said the Senate could not fail to act, although he ignored a push by Democrats to call lawmakers back from summer recess to debate the issue. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., has criticized many Republicans' unwillingness to consider legislation beyond red flag laws, which many Democrats see as insufficient. They're insisting on universal background checks too.

Ms. McSally's hopes for holding her seat hinge on holding onto voters in suburbs such as Gilbert, Mesa, and Scottsdale where Republicans have traditionally performed well but saw their fortunes wane in last year's midterms. Before she was appointed to the seat held by the late Sen. John McCain, Ms. McSally narrowly lost a 2018 Senate race to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, partly due to voters on the outskirts of Phoenix who split their tickets, voting for both Ms. Sinema and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.

Ms. McSally said her talk about changing gun laws is not new. She said that as a congresswoman, she sponsored an National Rifle Association-backed bill to improve background checks by making sure the database of people barred from owning guns is complete. But her openness, at least rhetorically, to new restrictions is a departure from her responses to earlier large-scale shootings.

After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year, Ms. McSally told an Arizona newspaper: "We have to address how we deal with those dealing with mental health issues."

The Republican Main Street Partnership, a group of about 50 GOP members of Congress representing suburban districts, believes women in suburbs overwhelmingly support action.

Suburban women "want their guns, but they also want some kind of background checks," said Sarah Chamberlain, the group's president and CEO.

Democrats have reason to be skeptical of Republican pledges on gun legislation. Mr. Trump has shifted gears before, under NRA pressure. Mr. McConnell has not taken up a House-passed bill approved in February that would require background checks for most private sales, including online and at gun shows, and not just for transactions involving registered gun dealers.

McSally, who may face a primary challenge from an opponent of gun restrictions, is against the House bill. She said the shooters in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, were cleared to buy firearms. She said she is concerned about making criminals of people who lend a gun to their family members or close friends without a background check.

Mr. Kelly called on the Senate to approve the House bill.

"To do nothing is irresponsible and dangerous," Mr. Kelly said in a statement released by his campaign.

Polls show Ms. McSally's red line on universal background checks does not align with the views of most Americans and may even face skepticism in Arizona.

Sixty-two percent of midterm voters in the U.S. and 56% in Arizona said gun laws should be made tougher, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the 2018 electorate. A March poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found about 8 in 10 Americans in favor of a federal law requiring background checks on all gun buyers, including at gun shows and by private sale. Three-quarters of Republicans backed the idea.

"Should a gun be sold online to just anybody? No," said Brittany Barnum of Mesa, Arizona, a 32-year-old mother of a 3-year-old. Ms. Barnum, who voted for Mr. Trump, said she's considered homeschooling her son out of concerns about school shootings.

Ms. Tetschner, the mother who lives outside Phoenix, said she is not against gun ownership, but would like to see "strict rules" to ensure people with psychological issues do not buy them.

"It's kind of getting old," she said, keeping a close eye on her two younger children chasing jets of water shooting from the ground of a splash pad on a hot morning. "It's to the point where I guess I assume nothing's going to get done, because it's happened a few times and nothing's been done."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Associated Press writer Matthew Daly and AP polling editor Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.

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