President Joe Biden is set to travel to Connecticut Friday to speak on one of the key issues uniting his ideologically and demographically diverse coalition: gun control.
Biden’s speech Friday at the National Safer Communities Summit in Hartford, organized by leading gun control groups, is not officially a campaign event. However, it comes as Biden is launching the most intense period of political activity since announcing he would run for reelection in April, one day before the first official rally of his reelection bid.
A central problem facing Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ reelection bid is simple: Their coalition includes everyone from moderate baby boomers in the suburbs to progressive college students in city cores, anchored by Black and Latino voters throughout the country. Gun control is a key issue gluing those disparate groups together.
Just within the past year and change, mass shootings have killed people in white Midwestern communities, West Coast Asian communities and Northeast urban Black communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 49,000 Americans died by gun violence in 2021, the most recent year for which numbers are available. And as the count of gun fatalities rise, so does American willingness to engage it as a political issue.
“It can impact anybody. No one is safe anymore,” said Celinda Lake, the president of Lake Research Partners, a national public opinion and Democratic political strategy research group that worked with the Biden campaign in 2020. “Whether you’re talking about your church, your workplace, your grocery store, your kids’ school.”
She said the broad — and growing — impact of gun violence means it has a cross-spectrum appeal as a political issue.
“Gun violence is becoming a great equalizer,” Lake said. Gun suicides in rural America, community violence in urban areas and mass shootings in public places are indiscriminate in who they injure or kill. “There’s just a sense that there is a broad reach now of all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances,” she added.
Polling indicates significant concern on the issue of gun violence, across demographics: Numbers from gun safety advocacy group Giffords in fall 2022 found that gun violence was an important issue for 87% of suburban women voters, with 76% of the demographic saying they were “concerned” about shootings in particular. Shootings were also a top concern for Hispanic and independent voters. Meanwhile, Black To The Future Action Fund polling conducted in December 2022 and released in March 2023 found that 44% of Black voters thought gun control legislation should be a major focus for the Biden/Harris administration.
Even an April 2023 poll from Fox News, an outlet that normally pooh-poohs gun control, found that a majority of voters favored stronger gun limits over arming oneself as a means of preventing gun violence.
Many of these demographics, of course, are among traditional Democratic constituencies. Lake said the issue of gun violence has the ability to link together multiple factions within the party.
“It can reinforce our persuasion strategies and our mobilization strategies,” she said, and reinforce other party policy agendas. “This can mobilize young people, it can mobilize African Americans, and can persuade Latino voters who are very worried about their kids being shot at school. We can mobilize Asian American voters. There are just so many constituencies that this can reach out to.”
The consensus on common-sense gun reform — specific policies, like preventing people with mental illness from buying guns or expanding background checks, enjoy broad support — can also complement or add contrast to other big issues of concern to voters, like abortion, crime, and inflation. Lake notes it’s difficult to rationalize why abortion pills are prohibited from being shipped by mail, but a case of 1,000 bullets can be ordered online. And while crime remains a big concern for voters, it begs the question of how much crime overlaps with gun violence when 43% of gun deaths in the U.S. are homicides.
Even issues that would also seem to affect Americans across the board can’t match the weight of gun violence. “People think everyone’s impacted by inflation,” Lake said. “But it’s not … inflation doesn’t take away your life.”
The list of speakers at the Safer Communities Summit drives home how gun control knots the Democratic coalition together: Sen. Chris Murphy, whose political roots are in the upscale suburbs of western Connecticut, is hosting the gathering. Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Quinton Lucas, with his roots in the city’s poor East Side, is one of the speakers.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a dyed-in-the-wool progressive, is speaking just before Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition and a favorite of moderate former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
While gun control policies have been largely supported by Democrats, Republican politicians have largely resisted new regulations, in the apparent fear of displeasing the vocal wing of the party that opposes gun regulations. Instead, in the aftermath of shootings, Republicans have been quick to call for investments in mental health.
That strategy has had consequences: Polling from progressive group Navigator Research in April 2023 — a report which includes the footnote that it was conducted entirely after one mass shooting, and entirely before a separate shooting two weeks later — found that Democrats, including Biden, were more trusted by voters on issues related to gun violence than were Republicans. Crucially, that difference included a prominent gap from independent voters, who trusted Democrats by an 18-point margin.
Still, in 2022, shortly after mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, the two parties were able to come together and pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the most comprehensive piece of gun control legislation passed in the past 30 years. The bill, put together by a bipartisan working group, included investments in mental health and age restrictions on gun purchases, as well as funding for community interventions. However, it passed Congress with support from all Democrats, but only 30 Republicans — 14 in the House and 15 in the Senate. Two weeks after the bill was passed, seven people were killed in a mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois. Friday’s summit is intended to highlight the legislation and its implementation.
“The sad thing is, nothing brings people together, sometimes, more than having something you have to respond to, some kind of tragedy,” said Angela Ferrell-Zabala, the executive director for gun safety advocacy group Moms Demand Action, one of the advocacy groups leading the Friday summit.
“Whether you’re coming from a suburban area, you’re coming from a more rural area, [or] you’re coming from a big city. Even in those different spaces, we still can find common ground. And I think when we also can see proof of our labor with things like [what’s] happening in states that are signing important bills into law, then people can feel a sense of community together.”
Victories have been a long time coming, she noted. “Starting this work, it really was difficult in many ways. One, because this was a third rail of politics and no one really wanted to speak on this when we think about our leaders,” she said of Moms Demand Action’s founding in 2012, following the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 26 people, mostly children. “[In] the decade that we have been around, the wonderful thing is, No. 1, it’s not a third rail of politics anymore.”