WASHINGTON — Republican resistance to gun control measures could cost them among a key voting bloc, according to new polling.
The Republican Main Street Partnership commissioned a poll of 1,000 registered voters in five suburban House districts that found that nearly three out of four suburban women polled favored stricter gun laws, according to the Washington Post.
Suburban voters like that are crucial in the districts Republicans need to take back control of the House.
“It should catch the attention of any Republican in a swing district,” University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Randall Adkins said of the poll. “While there may be pressure from the party to not take up the issue, clearly this is a priority for a large percentage of voters in the district.”
In the wake of mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, President Donald Trump initially signaled an openness to bolstering background checks but has been more mixed in his comments since.
House Democrats passed a background check bill earlier this year, but only eight Republicans supported it. All GOP members from Nebraska and Iowa opposed it, and there’s little evidence that it can pass the Senate.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee is returning early from August recess to consider additional measures.
Any action — or lack of action — may reverberate in suburb-heavy swing districts like Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District.
That’s where Omaha-area Republican Rep. Don Bacon has raised objections to proposals such as requiring universal background checks, banning AR-15 rifles and restricting large-capacity magazines.
Those measures drew a lot of support among suburban women in the polling released by the Main Street Partnership, a centrist Republican group that counts Bacon as a member.
Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates
Receive a summary of the day’s popular and trending stories from Omaha.com.
Bacon says he understands the desire for action on gun violence but questions the effectiveness and constitutionality of banning particular firearms or requiring background checks on noncommercial gun transfers.
“I believe in doing something that improves safety and is within the Constitution,” Bacon said.
Bacon said he does want to crack down on straw purchases — when individuals purchase firearms legally in order to then give them to others prohibited from owning them.
One locally notorious straw purchase was when a Georgia woman purchased a gun for her boyfriend, a felon, who later used the weapon to kill Omaha Police Officer Kerrie Orozco. That woman received probation.
Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer has urged lawmakers to do something on the issue.
“We’d like to see an enhanced penalty for straw purchases,” Schmaderer told The World-Herald. “We’re trying to work with a lot of people to get this addressed, but we still continue to have a number of major cases involving straw purchases.”
Bacon noted other proposals that he thinks are promising, such as modernizing databases used for background checks and improving coordination among law enforcement in evaluating threats.
He said he’s open to “red flag” laws that could allow dangerous individuals to have their guns taken away but stressed that they must include strong due process protections for those at risk of losing their guns.
Bacon said he opposed the background check measure earlier this year because it went too far, making a criminal of someone who gives a gun to a neighbor.
But polling shows that many voters — particularly those suburban women — like the idea of expanding background checks.
Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb said the issue of guns resonates with mothers, whose worries about adequately funded school music programs have been replaced with concerns about their children’s safety.
“I deeply believe that guns will be a major issue in 2020,” Kleeb said. “I think that moms are terrified at the prospect that we are now having to decide if we’re going to buy our kids bulletproof backpacks.”
Democrats vying to oppose Bacon in next year’s election have already been highlighting the need to address gun violence.
“Every single one of our candidates is supportive of strong gun reforms,” Kleeb said. “It will be a central issue.”
Bacon expressed confidence that he can ultimately win the argument, in part because the public will see that those pushing for gun control would go too far.
“The activists here, they won’t be happy until only the police and the criminals have guns,” Bacon said. “Because that will be the net effect of their policy.”
Bacon cited cases in which universal background checks have been put up for public referendum in swing states and struggled to win approval.
He said he hears from many people who tell him the 2nd Amendment represents the most important right enshrined in the Constitution.
During a recent town hall, Bacon cited a friend who likes to use an AR-15 for target practice.
Bacon said his words have been misconstrued by critics who characterized him as simply looking out for a buddy.
He said his point was that one friend represents thousands of people across the district who are law-abiding citizens exercising their constitutional right to own a gun.
“Some people — this is their favorite hobby,” Bacon said. “And some of them like it for home defense. I think we have to remember that 99% are good people.”
Adkins noted that Republicans running in swing districts have to worry about potentially attracting a primary challenge. And gun rights advocates traditionally have been more passionately focused on that single issue than those on the other side.
That could be changing.
Adkins said he expects that guns will play more of a role nationally in the 2020 elections and could well factor into Omaha’s congressional race as well.
“If Congressman Bacon continues to take a strong position with the gun advocates, then I suspect that whoever his Democratic opponent is is going to see that as an opportunity,” Adkins said.