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Some Democrats Hesitant To Run On Gun Control


After the Parkland, Fla., shooting, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy and other Democrats have plotted a political strategy with gun control groups. Murphy pointed out that the NRA has turned support for guns into support at the polls for years.

CHRIS MURPHY: We have to build the same kind of political operation.

MARTIN: Murphy wants more Democrats to be as outspoken about gun control as he is. But as NPR's Scott Detrow reports, many are hesitant.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Unlike after previous mass shootings, the push in Washington to do something feels much more real and sustained. President Trump met with lawmakers from both parties in the White House Cabinet Room yesterday. Murphy is keeping his expectations low.

MURPHY: Until people get voted out of office because they're supporting the NRA, nothing is likely going to happen here of significance.

DETROW: For years, Murphy has urged Democrats to go on offense and campaign hard against Republicans who block gun control. He points to polls like a recent Quinnipiac University survey in Florida, the site of the most recent mass shooting but also for some of the most lax gun laws in the nation. More than 9 in 10 respondents support universal background checks. And more than 6 in 10 back banning assault-style weapons.

MURPHY: Democrats used to be so scared of this issue. They thought it was a political loser, even though the polls told you that background checks was popular. Today there's absolutely no question. I mean, this issue just pops off of the polls. Nothing polls as good as universal background checks in the country.

DETROW: But while Democrats are getting louder and louder about gun control, many still do seem pretty hesitant to make it a focal point. Take New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell. This week, he called out Republicans for repealing a rule meant to block people with mental illness from buying guns.


BILL PASCRELL: We need a concerted and comprehensive effort to address gun violence and gun violence epidemic - the epidemic in this country.

DETROW: But asked whether Democrats trying to flip Republican-held New Jersey seats should focus on guns, Pascrell hesitated.

PASCRELL: Well, if you ask them, what's the top five priorities? - this probably wouldn't be in the top five priorities for them. Health and taxes are. But this is maybe between five and 10.

DETROW: A few minutes later...


PASCRELL: If you take this as the one issue you're going to win on, I'd advise you to probably be prepared to lose.

DETROW: So don't expect gun control ads to drown out commercials about Trump or jobs, especially for the 10 Democrats trying to keep Senate seats in states Trump won. Still, Democratic strategist Karen Finney thinks gun control can fit into a broader campaign message.

KAREN FINNEY: You've either voted to keep us safe, or you have voted with the NRA. I think you can make it that clear. And again, I think that is a statement of values.

DETROW: Democrat Conor Lamb is trying to walk this line in western Pennsylvania's upcoming special House election. The district includes some of the high-income, high-education Pittsburgh suburbs and some of the most conservative pro-Trump stretches of the state. Here he was at a recent debate.


CONOR LAMB: What I would like to see is a background check system that actually works. Right now, it is full of holes.

DETROW: But when it comes to an assault weapons ban...


LAMB: I do not support that. I've been thinking about violent crime for a long time as a prosecutor. And most of the cases that I saw were committed with handguns and by people who were already not allowed to have those firearms.

DETROW: Democrats say their candidates need to be in tune with their voters. And in this western Pennsylvania district, Lamb's initial TV ads featured images of him shooting a rifle.

Scott Detrow, NPR News.


Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.