The gun control advocates gathered at Murphey Candler Park on one of the first cool Saturday mornings of the fall, armed with canvassing tools on their smartphones and frustration over Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 100 or so volunteers ventured deep into suburban Brookhaven to “channel that frustration into action,” as volunteer Beth Freeman put it, hoping to use a battle over gun rights to rally voters in one of the state’s most competitive areas.
Republicans are mounting a counteroffensive, warning that Democratic victories would pose the sharpest threat in decades to expansions in gun rights. The National Rifle Association recently snapped up $500,000 in TV airtime to drive their case home.
There’s a reason the territory has fast become a battleground on firearms. Top politicians from both parties have generally embraced a friendly attitude toward gun rights proponents, and the firearms lobby enjoyed immense power under the Gold Dome.
But gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and other leading Democrats have broken from decades of conventional party strategy in Georgia in this year's midterms by calling for new firearms restrictions.
Abrams and others say voters shell-shocked from a spate of mass shootings are now more supportive of her calls for universal background checks for private sales of firearms, a ban of high-powered assault rifles and a repeal of campus gun legislation.
Down the ticket, too, Democrats aren't shying away from what they dub "commonsense" gun changes. The most prominent example may be 6th Congressional District nominee Lucy McBath, who was driven to become a Moms Demand Action leader after her teenage son's shooting death.
Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing an even tighter embrace of firearms. During an overheated primary, a military veteran was branded a traitor for suggesting raising minimum age limits for gun purchases and a leading candidate for Georgia’s No. 2 job challenged his rival to a shootout.
But no candidate carved an image for himself quite like Brian Kemp, the GOP's nominee for governor. His ad pointing a shotgun toward a daughter's date helped secure his spot in the runoff, and his call for a sales tax holiday for guns and ammunition endeared him to firearms groups.
He’s not emphasizing it on the campaign trail at this point, wary of being seen as a far-right conservative while trying to appeal to a more moderate pool of voters for the general election. And Democrats hope voters won’t forget: They’ve just unleashed a new TV spot featuring footage from Kemp’s shotgun-toting ad.
‘A winning issue?’
A recent Abrams campaign stop in Chamblee put on display why Republicans could be on precarious ground.
Almost as soon as she finished her stump speech at a Chinese restaurant, Stanley Shin stood up to address the candidate. He’s a cardiologist from Statesboro who twice voted for Republican Gov. Nathan Deal but is worried about mass shootings and leaning toward flipping his vote.
“I am literally concerned about an explosion of gun violence. And the Republican Party is not doing anything about it. That’s a motivating factor to me,” Shin said. “This has to stop. All across the country.”
That was music to Abrams' ears. She peppers her campaign talk with mentions of her gun control proposals, and she often tells voters to ignore the attacks claiming she's planning to "confiscate and ban guns."
“For me, those are commonsense decisions that do not diminish anyone’s right to bear arms,” Abrams said. “But it respects and reflects the responsibility that every gun owner has. And my mission is responsible gun ownership.”
That approach deviates from decades of Democratic strategy on guns, when candidates for governor shied away from calling for restrictive changes to state gun laws and enjoyed the gun lobby’s support.
Republicans hope their rivals will pay for this more aggressive strategy. The NRA has taken sides in lower-level contests, backing Republican Geoff Duncan's bid for lieutenant governor. And other pro-gun groups have flooded their supporters with ominous messages about Abrams' agenda and her ties to Michael Bloomberg, the ex-New York City mayor and vocal gun control supporter.
“This is a gun-friendly state,” said Bert Brown, the owner of the Governors Gun Club in Kennesaw. “And we’re fortunate we have legislators that want to keep it that way.”
Still, recent signs point toward a shift in attitude. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in April showed a broad majority of likely voters want stricter gun control measures, including a growing number of Republicans who break ranks with their party leaders.
“I believe that everyone should have a gun to protect their home,” said Larry Berry, a retired forklift driver from Gainesville. “But, with road rage, I don’t know about keeping one in your car. And in Atlanta — the way they’re shooting out there, they ought to outlaw handguns.”
Analysts say the tilt toward new restrictions is part of a national trend that crystallized after the shootings in a Parkland, Fla., high school left 17 dead.
That state's Republican-controlled Legislature banned bump stocks, raised the minimum age to buy guns to 21 and imposed a three-day waiting period for purchases — part of a package of legislation hailed as a landmark victory by gun control advocates.
“Gun violence, by and large, has been declining for a generation, but these mass shootings in what many people believe should be safe spaces are jarring to people,” said Kristin Goss, a Duke University political scientist. “Public polling shows that this is a winning issue for Democrats.”
Additionally, Goss said, political parties have become more “sorted” on the issue of guns, making it safer for Democrats to vocally run on a platform pushing gun control.
A new approach
Those seismic forces are putting some Republicans in competitive territory in a bind.
State Sen. Fran Millar has represented a Dunwoody-based district for eight years as it morphed from a deep-Republican bastion to a battleground in the burbs. Facing a well-financed Democratic opponent, he highlights his bipartisan streak by invoking his opposition to the campus gun bill in 2017.
“I know there’s people in this room who weren’t happy when I voted against campus carry,” he told supporters at a Dunwoody Country Club fundraiser, referring to the state law that allows guns on public college and university campuses. “But that’s how I felt. I’m trying to take a bipartisan approach. Quite frankly, that’s the only way I’ll get elected. Donald Trump lost my district 55-41.”
House Minority Leader Bob Trammell said it has become increasingly difficult to discuss gun policy as the country has become more polarized.
Still, the Luthersville Democrat said while voters in his rural district are strong supporters of gun rights, they want to make sure weapons don’t get into the wrong hands.
“I think they want commonsense measures to make sure that guns don’t fall into the hands of felons, terrorists and the mentally ill,” Trammell said.
Whoever wins the governor’s race will face a wrenching challenge.
Even though the Legislature is set to remain in Republican hands, Kemp and his allies may find it harder to push the expansions he promised through a more divided statehouse. And Abrams would face a fierce fight trying to persuade GOP legislative leaders to reverse a tide of gun expansions.
“If Brian Kemp wins and if Geoff Duncan wins, I don’t see us having to play too much defense at the statehouse,” said Jerry Henry of GeorgiaCarry.org, a gun rights group. “If those people don’t get elected, we’ll probably have to push our issues a little harder.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is putting issues out front in its coverage of this year's election. Topics the AJC has already explored include health care, election security and the influence of dark money in fundraising. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state approaches Election Day on Nov. 6.