In Georgia, Democrats chart new course on gun control

Georgia Democrats used to brag about endorsements from the National Rifle Association. That has changed, and it accelerated following the shootings last month at a Florida high school that killed 17, with leading candidates from the party calling for new gun restrictions. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Georgia Democrats used to brag about endorsements from the National Rifle Association. That has changed, and it accelerated following the shootings last month at a Florida high school that killed 17, with leading candidates from the party calling for new gun restrictions. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Not so long ago, most leading Georgia Democrats cozied up to pro-gun groups.

Gov. Roy Barnes proudly brandished his endorsement from the National Rifle Association in 1998 and 2002. Mark Taylor boasted of being a “friend” of the NRA in 2006. And Jason Carter voted for a measure dubbed by critics the “guns everywhere” bill as he ran to unseat Gov. Nathan Deal.

Not anymore. Now Georgia Democrats are embracing proposed firearms restrictions and openly warring with the gun lobby, a remarkably quick shift that upends the party’s decades-old political approach to the debate.

“Vehicle,” the Phrase of the Week by James Salzer. Video by Bob Andres /

The thousands of gun control demonstrators who are set to rally in Atlanta this weekend will hear from a new wave of Democratic politicians who have seized on mass shootings to call for new firearms restrictions.

At the top of the ticket, Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans have tried to outdo each other on new firearms crackdowns. And Democratic candidates down the ballot are embracing gun control not just as a policy plank, but as a central campaign theme this midterm vote.

Leading Democratic lawmakers staged a “walkout” to stand with students across the state who marched out of classrooms to demand stricter gun rules. And even Democratic contenders in conservative districts are embracing the trend.

They are betting that November’s elections, when every statewide constitutional office and legislative seat is up for grabs, will prove that Republicans are on the wrong side of the gun debate.

Republicans are showing little sign of backing down. The leading GOP candidates in Georgia have all stuck to arguments pushed by the NRA and other gun rights advocates that tighter regulations on firearms will do little to stop mass shootings.

Instead, they say teachers need to be armed, school security must be upgraded, law enforcement should be given more tools to crack down on abusers and background checks for prospective gun owners require tightening.

“The Second Amendment was given to us not just to protect us from government but also the failure of government,” said Clay Tippins, a business executive and GOP candidate for governor, who like his rivals, said new restrictions are not the answer.

“There are so many things that can be done that could have avoided that situation and made sure that never happens in Georgia,” Tippins said. “We should focus on all the government failures — and focus on stopping them.”

Of D’s and F’s

At campaign stops, it doesn’t take long for top Democratic candidates to take on the issue.

Abrams, a former House minority leader, opened her speech last week to the Young Democrats of Georgia by talking about a recent meeting with grade-school students whose biggest worry is not about graduating but “how to make it through the day alive” because of gun violence.

She and Evans, an ex-state legislator, call for new gun restrictions that include tighter background checks and limits on firearm purchases. Both have mostly voted against pro-gun measures, including last year's legislation that expanded where guns can be carried on college campuses.

One of the bigger flash points in the race, though, involves just how adamantly each backs gun control.

Abrams has repeatedly criticized Evans for her vote for a law that bars local police departments from destroying some firearms confiscated during criminal investigations and instead requires them to be auctioned. That vote briefly gave Evans a B+ rating with the NRA, though it has since bottomed to a D. Abrams has made her own F a selling point.

“I’m the only person in this campaign who has never gotten a B rating from the NRA,” Abrams said at one recent forum. “I’ve proudly failed their test every year.”

In an interview, Evans said she voted for the bill because of another provision that returns guns confiscated by law enforcement to owners that didn’t commit crimes. She said she would support revising the measure to explicitly allow police to destroy confiscated weapons, and she pointed to other prominent Democrats that also backed the bill.

“Abrams and I have differences on many issues,” said Evans, who defeated an NRA-backed opponent in 2016, “but gun safety is not one of them.”

‘NRA Democrat’

Those candidates staked their positions long before the shooting deaths of 17 people last month at a Parkland, Fla., high school set off a broader national debate. But the stances illustrate how starkly the Democratic debate has changed in Georgia.

In the 1980s and the 1990s, as the NRA was gaining clout in national politics, the gun group gave critical support to Democrats even as frustrated Republicans tried to flip statewide offices and legislative seats that had long eluded them.

Barnes used the NRA’s endorsement in 1998 to counter claims by his Republican opponent, Guy Millner, that he was soft on crime and “too liberal for Georgia.” He earned statewide headlines for a fly-around with the NRA’s chief lobbyist to remind voters of his pro-gun bona fides.

“If there’s one group on the face of the earth that doesn’t endorse bleeding-heart liberal, soft-on-crime candidates, it’s the NRA,” Barnes told voters on that trip.

Four years later, Republican Sonny Perdue challenged Barnes to a skeet shoot for the NRA’s endorsement, and his campaign accused the Democrat of not knowing “the difference between a shotgun and a bass boat.”

And though Barnes still got the coveted endorsement for his failed re-election push, Perdue flew to Washington for a sit-down with NRA chief Wayne LaPierre. He went on that trip with Dan McLagan, a top deputy who this year is advising several GOP candidates facing votes.

McLagan, too, has noted the Democratic shift and chalks it up to partisans who have been “radicalized” by the defeat of moderates who once embraced gun rights but were gradually defeated.

“It’s a hell of a Catch-22 for Democrats,” McLagan said. “They can’t win general elections outside of liberal enclaves without supporting the Second Amendment. But they can’t win primaries anywhere without being for gun confiscation.”

The last statewide election cycle featured another stab at conventional Democratic gun strategy.

Carter, then a state senator, called himself an "NRA Democrat" and voted for a controversial measure that allowed Georgians to legally carry firearms in a range of new places that includes bars, churches and government buildings.

And former U.S. Rep. John Barrow made waves with an ad in which he wielded his grandfather's Smith and Wesson and pulled out his concealed carry permit. His kicker: "You never really need a gun unless you need it bad."

Barrow lost that election and his title as the last white Democrat from the Deep South in the U.S. House. He’s back on the ballot this year in a crowded race for Georgia’s secretary of state, a job that has little say in the state’s gun policy debate.

But Barrow, who has pledged a war on gerrymandered districts, cautioned candidates not to take "extreme" positions on either side of the gun debate.

"That makes it harder to get to an agreement. It's better if we can make a conscientious attempt to listen to folks on the other side of the issue and take them on face value," said Barrow, who has a long record of voting for gun rights expansions. "And that's driven by the spirit of partisan polarization."

‘Catching up’

Across the ballot, Republican candidates wary of being painted as soft on the Second Amendment have pledged to go the opposite route if elected.

Each of the top Republican contenders for governor and most other races endorsed legislation that punished Delta Air Lines after it cut ties with the NRA by depriving the Atlanta-based company of a lucrative tax break.

Legislative leaders have derailed proposed gun restrictions, including a ban on bump stock devices used by a Las Vegas gunman to carry out one of the largest mass murders in U.S. history. And candidates for the state's top job have tried to outdo each other with appeals to gun owners.

State Sen. Michael Williams pledged to raffle off a bump stock — which allows semiautomatic rifles to fire at a faster rate — in defiance of federal calls for new restrictions. And Secretary of State Brian Kemp vowed to back a sales-tax holiday for guns and ammunition timed for next year's July 4 holiday.

For Democrats down the ballot, resisting those changes has become a badge of honor. A prominent gun control advocate is running to represent Atlanta's northern suburbs in the U.S. House, and the state party sees a bump stock ban as such a salient issue that it has included a question on restricting the devices on each primary ballot in May.

“Times have changed. Over the last several years, the NRA has moved away from mainstream — even conservative mainstream — opinion,” said Bobby Kahn, a former state Democratic Party chairman who pointed to NRA opposition to Republican-backed changes to gun laws.

“The NRA left Georgia Democrats,” he added, “not the other way around.”

Barnes echoed that attitude. The former governor said all but a “vocal minority” favor stricter background checks, new mental health reporting requirements and limits of sales of firearms at gun shows.

"I am a hunter and a gun guy and these moves are reasonable," he said, before referring to Parkland students who have sought to transform the gun debate. "However, these kids are moving public opinion."

In conservative-leaning districts, too, Democrats are more willing to challenge GOP incumbents on gun rights.

Dan Berschinski is a former U.S. Army infantry officer who lost both his legs in Afghanistan after he stepped on an improvised explosive device. He's among a trio of Democrats challenging state Rep. Beth Beskin in a once-reliably Republican district in north Atlanta where voters backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

And he's pushing for limited gun restrictions, such as strengthening the background check process and raising the age limit to buy some firearms from 18 to 21. Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed similar legislation this month, prompting the NRA to sue the state.

“Our country needs to seriously consider exploring ways we can stay true to the Second Amendment while ensuring our children and neighbors are safe,” Berschinski said.

“I was an infantry officer. I’m incredibly comfortable with firearms. But I was trained at the highest levels,” he said. “I respect the Second Amendment as a fundamental right. We should ask our citizens to treat gun ownership seriously — as our soldiers do.”

Up the road in another GOP stronghold, Matt Southwell is challenging a Republican incumbent in a Georgia House district that’s known as a hotbed of support for pro-gun legislation. It includes Kennesaw, which adopted an unenforced 1982 law requiring every homeowner to have a gun.

Southwell said he’s not opposed to legislation to raise the age limit to buy firearms to 21, so long as it includes exceptions for military and law enforcement, and he pledges to “close gun loopholes.” Above all, he added, he’s not afraid to draw the scorn of the pro-gun lobby.

“There’s a cultural shift. That’s something I’m very excited to see, particularly the strength of the youth voice,” said Southwell, who is 32. “We’re definitely seeing a youth-led movement on this issue. And the candidates are catching up.”