Revived gun control debate could roil Georgia Senate race

In an emotional prime-time address, President Joe Biden implored Congress to “do something” to curb gun violence. This week, the House will vote on a package of gun control measures while, in the Senate, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has been working to find common ground.

The sudden focus on gun control following a recent massacre at a Texas elementary school is throwing an unexpected snag into Georgia’s U.S. Senate campaign. Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock is a co-sponsor of a new proposal in the Senate seeking a ban on semiautomatic weapons, such as AR-15 rifles, but he hasn’t been advertising that fact. Republican Herschel Walker has struggled to articulate any position at all in the wake of the shooting.

It’s a sign of how tricky the issue is in Georgia, a state that has traditionally embraced strong support for gun rights but where political winds are shifting as the state has shifted more Democratic.

In January, nearly 7 in 10 Georgia voters who took part in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll said they did not believe adults in Georgia should be allowed to carry concealed handguns in public without first getting a license. But the Republican-led state Legislature passed a bill that did just that, and Gov. Brian Kemp promptly signed it into law.

University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said that poll — in which more than 50% of Republican respondents said they opposed eliminating the license requirement for handguns — challenges the long-held view that the Georgia GOP is united in its support of gun rights.

“The state may be in the process of changing,” Bullock said. “That could be especially true when every week, sometimes every day, you have an example of a new deadly shooting.”

Courtney Spriggs, Georgia chapter leader for Moms Demand Action, said that most Georgians she has encountered back reasonable gun control measures in a face-to-face conversation.

“Unfortunately, the loudest voices are often the ones that get heard,” Spriggs said.

But Rick Dent, a veteran Democratic political strategist, cautioned that the gun issue has the potential to be more dangerous to Democrats than Republicans because Democrats have the tendency to overreach. In Georgia and throughout the South, he said, guns are embedded in the culture in a way that can make gun control thorny.

“If, in November, Democrats are seen as the party of take away your guns and Joe Biden, they will lose,” Dent said.

In his speech last week, Biden urged lawmakers to strengthen background checks for gun buyers and enact a national “red flag” law that would allow a judge to temporarily confiscate weapons from someone determined to be a threat. He also urged lawmakers to consider a ban on semiautomatic weapons or raising the age for purchase of those weapons from 18 to 21.

Warnock has won kudos in gun control circles for being one of just two Democratic senators facing tough reelection battles to sign on to a bill that would ban semiautomatic weapons ban sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. A campaign spokeswoman said he also supports additional background checks and red flag laws.

But in the days since the shooting Warnock’s team hasn’t used social media or a press release to tout that support. Instead, he’s stayed focused on kitchen table economic issues such as capping insulin prices and creating jobs.

Walker, meanwhile, has been excoriated for twice offering incomprehensible answers when asked about gun control.

“What about looking at getting a department that can look at young men that’s looking at women that’s looking at their social media?” Walker asked in an appearance on Fox News.

Asked by the AJC whether Walker would back a semiautomatic weapons ban, extended background checks or red flag laws, the Walker camp declined to answer.

In a statement provided by his campaign, Walker said the problem involved mental health and school security.

“The solution to this problem is not more laws taking away our Second Amendment rights or preventing Americans from defending themselves and their families,” Walker said. “(A)s a country we need to get serious about developing better and more effective mental health programs.”

Senators on Capitol Hill who are working on a gun control compromise have said they are optimistic, but past attempts to reach a deal have failed, even after other lethal mass shootings.

Bullock said it’s likely neither candidate wants to dwell on the issue. Focus-group-tested messages on economic issues and inflation are safer ground for them.

Still, Spriggs said her group would work to keep the issue in the spotlight.

“Mass shootings get the most attention, but they are not what is most dangerous,” she said, noting that domestic incidents, suicides and other violent incidents kill more people.

“I don’t think moms who have children are going to let this go anytime soon,” she said.

But Dent said history has shown that may not be the case,

“The intensity of the the gun issue evaporates fast,” he said.