Gun control groups are on track to outspend the National Rifle Association in federal races for the first time in years, yet even post-Parkland they’re struggling to make headway in this year’s midterm elections.
Less than one out of every 50 broadcast campaign TV ads run in federal races over the last two months has dealt with gun control, lagging far behind the big issues of health care and taxes, according to a new study by the Wesleyan Media Project.
“It’s just not getting much attention,” said Travis Ridout, a co-director of the project, which has been tracking midterm campaign ads.
After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, gun control activists vowed to force the issue into this year’s races. Students from the school led national protests and promised to punish the NRA and its candidates.
The NRA, indeed, is suffering on the financial front, putting down at least $7.3 million on ads and media to help its preferred candidates in 2018, according to a recent study from the Center for Responsive Politics. By contrast, in 2016 the NRA spent more than $54 million, and more than $27 million in 2014, according to CRP.
Gun control groups, meanwhile, spent $9.8 million over the same period in 2018, according to CRP.
But an NRA spokeswoman said the group’s grassroots organization has always been its strength.
“The majority of Americans support our Second Amendment right to self-defense, and they vote,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Baker.
The gun control groups’ message is also being drowned out by other issues, and it’s unclear how much of a difference that spending will make.
Much of the millions being spent by Everytown for Gun Safety and its associated groups has gone toward boosting Georgia congressional candidate Lucy McBath, a former Everytown spokeswoman whose son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed in 2012, CRP found.
Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ gun control group said its recent million dollar-plus ad campaigns have taken their toll on GOP Reps. Jason Lewis in Minnesota and Barbara Comstock in Virginia — two Republican incumbents being targeted by a host of Democrat-aligned groups.
A recent poll commissioned by Giffords PAC found that guns ranked second, behind health care, on issues important to voters in Mr. Lewis’ district, and that Democrat Angie Craig has gained ground since the ads started running.
“In Minnesota — and in swing districts coast to coast — people are paying attention to where candidates stand on stronger gun laws and voting accordingly,” said Peter Ambler, Giffords’ executive director.
Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said recent polling shows that guns are among the top three issues voters in general say will determine their voting decisions in the midterms.
“That is new and different,” she said.
But support for new gun controls — and general public interest in gun policy — historically increases in the wake of major mass shootings, only to dissipate as time goes by.
That’s played out in the ads.
A Wesleyan study released soon after the Parkland shooting found that through March 12, 12 percent of campaign-related ads this cycle dealt with guns. From Sept. 4 to Oct. 25, the number in federal races was less than 2 percent.
Looking specifically at ads in key Senate races, Mr. Ridout found that fewer than 3 percent mentioned guns. That number dipped to less than 1 percent when it came to Facebook ads.
He said the group found zero specific mentions of the Parkland school shooting in the Senate races they looked at. That included the Senate race in Florida, the site of the Parkland shooting.
Over the course of the entire 2014 midterm election cycle, about 3 percent of ads that mentioned federal or gubernatorial candidates also mentioned guns, the group found. In 2016, that increased to 6 percent.
Parkland students are turning to more grass-roots avenues to keep their issue in the public’s mind ahead of the elections. They held events throughout the country during the 2018 campaign aimed at registering younger people to vote and presumably support pro-gun control candidates.
The students were scheduled to team up with Ms. Giffords, who was gravely wounded by a gunman at a constituent event in 2011, and comedian Billy Eichner for an event this Friday in Houston that’s aimed at energizing attendees to vote in the midterms.
“We know from polling how young people feel about gun issues,” Ms. Gardiner said. “It’s been very strategic on their part, and they’ve done a wonderful job.”
Still, gun-rights advocates say Parkland hasn’t fundamentally changed the contours of the debate.
“Our polling data is showing that gun owners are more energized in turning out to vote in this election than any other interest group,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation. “The other side doesn’t realize when they do this and they do it very publicly, our people see it as well and then our people fight back.”