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Gun control backers called Parkland a turning point — but big results may depend on the election

Advocates for gun safety have notched a few wins from statehouses to the nation’s Capitol, but major policy changes have been stymied in Washington.

Since the Parkland shooting, the so-called “March for Our Lives” demonstrations brought millions of activists into the streets in Washington and dozens of other cities, and the push for reform of gun laws has resonated in the news and on social media for months.
REUTERS/Aaron Bernstein

Fifth District DFL Rep. Keith Ellison said “it feels like something has changed.” DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar called the moment a “tipping point.” First District DFL Rep. Tim Walz said it “felt different.”

In the wake of the February high school shooting in Parkland, Florida — and the passionate activism that followed from the student survivors of the attack — politicians from Washington to St. Paul were predicting it was a landmark shift in the country’s gun debate.

Gone, some of them said, was the familiar cycle in which outrage and calls for action from elected officials would peak after a mass shooting, and then subside after reforms failed to get traction and the news cycle moved on.

Since then, the so-called “March for Our Lives” demonstrations brought millions of activists into the streets in Washington and dozens of other cities, and the push for reform of gun laws has resonated in the news and on social media for months. Lawmakers in Congress and in state legislatures have responded by passing a range of gun-related reforms.

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But so far, the activism generated by the Parkland shooting has failed to pressure lawmakers into passing the kind of sweeping gun reforms, like universal background checks for purchasing firearms, that many believe are necessary to mitigate gun violence.

There’s even some evidence that the turning point politicians talked about is giving way to the familiar mass-shooting pattern: A slate of opinion polling has indicated that the public’s concern about gun violence, and its desire for elected officials to enact stronger gun laws, has returned to levels seen before the Parkland shooting.

And in Congress — where Republican leadership has stonewalled most gun legislation — Democrats are talking about the gun issue less, as they focus on the November midterm elections and the churn of stories coming out of the Donald Trump administration.

Gun control advocates insist that the momentum is still on their side, but many are resigned to the fact that the most substantial changes may not happen until after this fall’s election — if they succeed in voting in new lawmakers who favor reforming gun laws.

Some progress since Parkland

Advocates for gun control have a long list of specific policy proposals they pushed to see passed after Parkland: Top of the list is universal background checks, which aim to make it harder for people with criminal records to purchase guns online or at gun shows.

Many advocates would like lawmakers to renew the ban on assault weapons, which Congress let expire in 2004. Also widely favored are measures to raise the minimum age for purchasing some firearms to 21, along with reforms that make it more difficult for those with histories of domestic violence to access guns.

Since Parkland, gun control advocates have notched some successes on the federal and state levels — progress many of them say would have been much harder before Parkland and the outbreak of student activism.

In Congress, lawmakers passed legislation shoring up the background check system, which aims to compel federal agencies to better report important information about a prospective gun buyer into the federal database. The spending bill for fiscal year 2018 contained a provision permitting the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research public health impacts of gun violence — something gun control proponents have long wanted.

There’s also been movement at the state level: Since Parkland, 15 states have passed some kind of gun control legislation, from Democrat-led states like Oregon and Washington to states with Republican governors, like Utah and South Dakota.

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Florida, fittingly, may have seen gun control backers’ biggest coup: Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation in March that imposes a mandatory three-day waiting period on gun purchases and raises the minimum age for purchasing firearms to 21, from 18. (Scott, who is running for U.S. Senate, approved the bill over opposition from the National Rifle Association.)

Most of these successes, however, happened when the Parkland tragedy was still fresh in the public consciousness. Now, nearly three months after the shooting took place, the general public’s engagement with the gun issue is diminishing, according to several public opinion polls.

A HuffPost analysis of polling found that the share of Americans who believe gun violence is a serious problem, favor making gun laws stricter and believe Congress should take action on gun violence peaked in the aftermath of Parkland, and then returned to earlier levels by mid-April.

In November, after a shooter in the Texas town of Sutherland Springs killed 22 people, 53 percent of Americans said gun violence was a “very serious problem.” That number jumped to 60 percent after Parkland, but had declined to 46 percent by April 13.

A similar pattern is evident in HuffPost polling on support for Congress taking action to curb gun violence: After Sutherland Springs, 41 percent of people said it was necessary. After Parkland, 48 percent said so, but by mid-April, 42 percent did.

A Gallup poll found that the share of Americans who believe guns are the country’s most pressing issue dropped from 13 percent in March to 6 percent in April.

‘We should probably talk about it more’

Despite the claims that things would be different after Parkland, polling reveals a familiar pattern, according to Paul Goren, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who studies public opinion polling.

“I don’t think this time really is different,” Goren said. “What we see is these awful tragedies of gun violence capture public attention, partly through nonstop media coverage for a short period of time. But what tends to happen is, once other issues become more salient and the media moves on, and the agenda has evolved, public opinion tends to reset to the initial equilibrium it was before the tragedy.”

In D.C., there’s far less chatter in the halls of Congress about gun reforms now than there was in February and March. Though lawmakers in favor of gun reform — a group that is overwhelmingly Democratic — have fought hard for what Congress has achieved, the ironclad reluctance of GOP leadership to put to the floor something like universal background checks has left them at a loss as to what to do next.

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Ellison told MinnPost that congressional Democrats should “probably talk about it more.”

“We are sensitive to the fact that Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are just, like, absolutely not, nothing, you get nothing,” he said, referring to the Republican leaders’ stances on holding gun votes. “We’ve moved on to talk about other things. It doesn’t mean the concern isn’t as high as ever.”

In St. Paul, DFL state Rep. Erin Maye Quade staged a 24-hour sit in on the House floor in April to protest the Legislature’s inaction on gun policy. She framed that move as a necessary one at this stage, to keep up pressure on her colleagues to do something about guns.

“I really didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “I felt the urgency had been outside of the Capitol. … There was no urgency inside the chamber.”

Like congressional Democrats, Minnesota House Democrats are in the minority, and need GOP buy-in to bring gun bills to the floor. With the legislative session drawing to a close, many gun control advocates are grappling with waiting a year for another chance to pass reforms.

Maye Quade also spoke to a general exhaustion among Democrats in Minnesota. “The things we are fighting against are so many that, I don’t know if it’s that Democrats are like, ‘it doesn’t matter,’ so much as it’s everything matters. We are worn out.”

“I understand why people might feel less motivated,” she said. The pressure has been taken off. … I just know, when, not if, the next mass shooting happens, it guts me, because I know we could be doing something.”

Keeping the pressure up

Even if the general public’s engagement on gun issues isn’t as high as it was after Parkland, activists say their advocacy organizations are as active as ever, and growing in size and influence.

Erin Zamoff, the president of the Minnesota chapter of Moms Demand Action, a leading gun safety group, argues that Parkland really has been a turning point for the cause. “I want to make clear that the gun violence prevention movement is strong and growing,” Zamoff told MinnPost. “Since Parkland, we’ve tripled the number of our chapters. … It really is a movement.”

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Zamoff made the point that the energized coalition of gun safety advocacy groups has not only scored victories with new policies, but also helped to block bills favored by the NRA. She held up as an example a bill that would have established so-called concealed carry reciprocity, which would make permits for concealed firearms function like driver’s licenses: valid everywhere, regardless of the state that issued them.

Though a version of concealed-carry reciprocity passed out of the House, it failed to get to Trump’s desk — which Zamoff cast as a major win.

“Even though the NRA spent millions of dollars to elect Trump, none of their priorities have been enacted,” she said. “That’s a shift in the last few months.”

Worth noting, too, is that some polling indicates that support for specific gun control measures remains high, even well after Parkland. A poll conducted by the Star Tribune in April found that nine out of 10 Minnesota voters favor mandatory background checks on all firearm purchases, even if respondents had mixed attitudes on broader gun issues and even the Parkland students themselves.

A relatively high share of voters plan to have gun issues front-and-center as they decide how to cast their votes in the midterms, according to several polls. But an April 19 survey from National Public Radio, PBS NewsHour, and Marist found guns fading from voters’ minds: 46 percent of registered voters said that a candidate’s position on guns would be a major factor in their voting decision. That’s a healthy share of the electorate, but it’s down from the 59 percent of voters who said guns would be a top midterm issue after Parkland.

As campaigns heat up and activity in Congress and state legislatures dies down, gun control advocates are now planning to focus on getting their message to voters, in hopes of making the midterms the post-Parkland “turning point” that so many hoped for.

“We want broader change and we need broader change,” Zamoff says. “If our representatives don’t pass meaningful gun legislation, then we will elect representatives who will.”

“I believe we have lots and lots of momentum to make changes on this,” said Ellison, who plays a role crafting Democrats’ midterm message as the No. 2 official at the Democratic National Committee. “We’re right now beginning to have people thinking about the election in the fall. … Once things pick up, you’ll have candidates talking much more about guns.”

Maye Quade, a freshman who represents House District 57A in Dakota County, says she’s noticed a shift in voters’ attention as she knocks on doors for her re-election campaign. “I counted five voters at doors in 2016 who told me gun violence prevention was their number one issue. That’s changing.”

“Even if we’re getting back into the same cycle,” she said, “voters won’t make it the same cycle in November.”