A slew of announced and expected 2024 Republican presidential contenders are headlining the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) annual meeting this weekend in Indianapolis as the nation reels from a string of recent mass shootings.
Former President Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and others will be making virtual and in-person appearances at the event to highlight their support for gun rights — an issue that plays well amongst the GOP base but that puts them at a crossroads with another crucial voting bloc: Gen Z and millennial voters.
That’s put Republicans in a tricky position as they juggle aligning themselves on key issues that bode well amongst their base while risking alienating another bloc of voters that have proven they can make or break critical elections.
Polling alone has shown a generational divide over how Americans view the issue of stricter gun laws. The results of a YouGov Social Change Monitor released last month show that while 23 percent of Republicans who are either Gen X, boomers or from the Silent Generation believe gun laws should be more restrictive than they are today, that percentage increased to 39 percent among GOP Gen Z and millennials.
Similarly, a separate Harvard Youth Poll found that 63 percent of American respondents aged 18 to 29 believe the country’s gun laws should be stricter.
But many Republicans and pro-gun advocacy groups aren’t convinced that the GOP needs to change their tune on the issue of guns among Gen Z voters. Tres Watson, a former spokesman for the Kentucky GOP, argued that younger people needed to be more involved in Republicans’ day-to-day politics if they want to sway the party.
“I mean every party has to ebb and flow with [the] base and with its voters, and if the Gen Z wants to influence Republican policy, they need to continue to vote, they need to continue to be active,” Watson said.
“They need to show up to county party meetings. They need to get involved in College Republicans or young Republicans,” he added. “They need to run for party offices. And … that’s the best way you can influence the process. Once you’re on the inside, it’s a lot easier to move the ball. If you’re on the outside yelling, you’re just a guy on a mountain.”
Aidan Johnston, federal affairs director at Gun Owners of America, called the polling among younger voters “disappointing” and suggested that he knew younger Americans whose views didn’t align with those who were polled.
But asked if he believed whether Republican candidates might have to adjust their views on the issue of guns for the GOP to grow their younger electorate, Johnston argued that wasn’t a feasible solution.
“I don’t believe that pivoting and compromising with the Second Amendment is ever a path to victory or something that a politician should do,” he said. “They all take an oath to uphold the Constitution … So I think that that is the only way that our government should treat the Second Amendment.”
But while some Republicans and gun rights groups are digging in their heels on the issue of guns and gun safety when it comes to the issue of Gen Z voters, other members of the party are warning against taking a purist approach among other voting blocs.
John Couvillon, a Louisiana-based pollster who typically works with Republicans, believes GOP contenders will ultimately have to draw support from a wider swath of voters in a general election rather than focusing solely on their base alone.
“I wouldn’t think you would have over 50 percent favoring some restrictions,” Couvillon said of GOP voters. “But since Democrats and independents vote in a general election as well, they are much more inclined to favor restrictions, which means a Republican who takes too much of a purist standpoint on guns may win a few brownie points in a primary electorate, but it will be far more costly in a general election electorate.”
The NRA’s convention, which kicks off on Friday, will take place roughly 115 miles away from
the scene of a deadly shooting that killed five and injured eight at a Louisville, Ky., bank earlier this week.
The site of the convention is also situated less than 300 miles away from Nashville, Tenn., where a shooting inside a private Christian school killed three children and three adult staff members in March.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) called for lawmakers to pass legislation that would make firearm access more difficult for those deemed a threat to the public in the wake of the shooting, while caveating during his remarks that he wanted to preserve the “the constitutional rights of the people of this state” — underscoring the balancing act at hand.
“We can all agree … it is possible, and it is important that we find a way to remove individuals who are a threat to themselves or to our society — to remove them from access to weapons,” he said on Tuesday. “I’m asking the legislature to bring forth thoughtful, practical measures to do that. To strengthen our laws — to separate those dangerous people from firearms, while at the same time preserving the constitutional rights of the people of this state.”
Tennessee lawmakers have come under intense scrutiny this past week, after the state’s Republican-led House voted to expel state Reps. Justin Pearson (D) and Justin Jones (D) for joining protests against gun violence in the aftermath of the school shooting.
Rep. Gloria Johnson also participated in the protest on the floor of the state legislature, but she survived expulsion by one vote. Pearson and Jones were reinstated to their positions this week.
Some gun safety groups have argued that embracing groups like the NRA could be politically toxic among key voting blocs like younger voters and voters of color.
“It’s a doom loop that portends electoral weakness for a generation, for any party that wraps its arms around the NRA because in addition to the suburban voters that are going to be heading to the polls in droves in 2024, you’re talking about alienating young voters, voters of color,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords.
“These key blocks that are going to be [constituting] winning electoral coalitions in the years and cycles to come,” he added.
The NRA did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Of course, the issue of guns and gun safety is nuanced — one that polls differently depending on the voter electorate and across the country. Couvillon noted that the issue of guns is similar to abortion — both being complex and nuanced issues that have a base of people who are aligned somewhere in the middle.
Some Republican strategists suggest that the party can take a multifaceted approach to better shoring up their support among critical voting blocs.
“Republicans can bridge the divide on the issue of guns / gun safety by having meaningful conversations with Independents and the younger generation,” GOP strategist Alice Stewart said in an email.
“The focus needs to be on gun violence, not just guns. The way to bring about change is to look at all factors including Red Flag laws, mental health, hardening soft targets, and school resources officers.”