The tragedy at the Covenant School in Nashville marked America’s 131st mass shooting of the year, just 86 days into 2023. The murders of six people – including three children – by a gunman wielding three legally-purchased guns triggered a political response that we are all-too-familiar with. Democrats called for gun safety reforms, which Republicans made clear are off-the-table, even though such measures are proven to be effective and are broadly supported by the American public.
The U.S. electorate, including many Republican voters, favor sensibly strict gun laws. Two thirds (67%) of registered voters nationally support banning assault-style weapons, and 88% support mandatory background checks on all gun sales. Among Republican voters, there is broad support for background checks (86%), and by a 8-point margin (49% to 41%), they favor an assault weapons ban.
Moreover, it strains credulity for prominent Republican officials to suggest that guns aren’t the problem, or that increasing the number of armed civilians will solve the gun violence epidemic. Among all other high-income countries, the U.S. stands out as the nation with the most firearms in the hands of civilians, the least restrictive gun laws, and by far the highest firearm homicide rate.
Three decades ago, in 1994, the U.S. Congress passed an assault weapons ban. The result? The number of both mass shootings and deaths from mass shootings fell. In the years following the ban’s expiration in 2004, there was an immediate and steep rise in mass shootings and gun-related deaths.
It goes without saying that the GOP’s guns-everywhere positioning is not grounded in reason, nor is it in line with public opinion. Rather, it is intended to appeal to the increasingly vocal far-right wing of the party, and to remain in the favor of special-interest gun groups like the National Rifle Association, which has given millions of dollars to Republicans in Congress over the last several decades.
This is clearly Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s goal. One of the most prominent Republicans in the country, DeSantis has moved drastically to the right on a number of issues, including guns, as he gears up to seek his party’s presidential nomination. He is likely to sign a recently passed bill that would allow civilians to carry loaded guns in public without a permit, which over three-quarters of Florida voters oppose.
Guns are not the only issue where the GOP is towing an extremist line and defying the data. Nationally, there is broad-based public support for abortion legality, and further, medical research underscores the necessity of ensuring access to safe and legal abortions from a public health standpoint.
Yet, after Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court last summer, GOP governors across the country moved to restrict – or in some cases, eliminate – abortion rights at the state-level, and some Republicans in Congress floated a national ban. For his part, DeSantis is preparing to sign into law a six-week abortion ban bill, before most women even identify a pregnancy, which 75% of his constituents oppose. Taken together with his extreme gun positions, DeSantis’ actions to undermine abortion access demonstrate that he caters only to the far-right in the Republican Party, putting him completely out-of-step with American public opinion.
Let alone the tangible harm that DeSantis and other GOP officials are inflicting on the country with their extreme positions on guns and abortion, they are also essentially handing Democrats a successful messaging framework to deploy in 2024.
The 2022 midterms – or, more specifically, the historic underperformance Republican candidates – highlighted the political power of both issues, particularly abortion rights. Democrats were most successful in swing-states where abortion rights were ‘on the ballot,’ so to speak, either literally vis-à-vis a constitutional amendment, or being embodied by an extreme anti-abortion Republican candidate.
Likewise, post-election research conducted by Schoen Cooperman Research on behalf of Everytown for Gun Safety found that Democratic messaging on gun safety likely aided some Democrats in battleground races this cycle. The majority of voters in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin indicated that gun policy was important to their vote, and were more likely to support “a Democrat who supports strengthening gun safety laws” over “a Republican who opposes more gun restrictions.”
These two issues are clearly salient individually, and even more powerful collectively. If Democrats in 2024 can drive home the argument that Republicans are putting public health and safety at risk by refusing to support both gun violence prevention measures and abortion access – which is part of quality healthcare – the GOP could once again face a number of losses in those important, contested, races.
While the Republican Party’s guns-everywhere, anti-abortion agenda may resonate with the small but vocal far-right faction, this platform is isolating the GOP from the broader electorate. But, despite the clear warning signs, there is no indication that the party will change course anytime soon.
The top-two contenders for the 2024 Republican, DeSantis and Donald Trump, are locked in a fight for the far-right’s vote. Meanwhile, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the most powerful Republican in Washington, D.C., is essentially beholden to the extreme House Freedom Caucus as a result of the concessions he made to secure the speakership.
McCarthy’s silence in the days since the Covenant School shooting speaks volumes, as do the reactions of many Republicans who used the occasion to reaffirm their support for the Second Amendment.
But the blunt response from Rep. Tim Burchett, who hails from the state where this tragedy took place, best-encapsulates how out-of-step with the national sentiment today’s Republican Party has become.
When asked what the Republican-controlled Congress would do to address school shootings, Burchett responded: “we’re not gonna fix it.”
Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.