After Parkland, Some Republicans Try To Outdo Each Other On Gun Rights In Primaries

May 8, 2018
Originally published on May 11, 2018 8:22 pm

Political ads in Georgia's Republican gubernatorial primary this year may be the most charged of any intraparty battle around the country, especially when it comes to guns.

One ad shows former state Sen. Hunter Hill at a shooting range loading one gun, eyes steady on the camera, and firing another.

"We don't need a carry permit," Hill says in the ad. "The only thing we need as Americans is the U.S. Constitution. And as governor, I won't give an inch on our Second Amendment."

Hill and other Republicans in the primary back some form of a "constitutional carry" law that would allow Georgians to carry handguns without a permit.

In another ad, Georgia's Secretary of State Brian Kemp sits with a shotgun in his lap, surrounded by guns. Next to Kemp is a young man he calls "Jake," who, for the sake of the ad, at least, wants to date one of his daughters.

Jake reads Kemp's policy platform, and then Kemp turns to him, "And the two things if you're going to date one of my daughters?" he asks.

"Respect. And a healthy appreciation for the Second Amendment, sir," Jake replies.

"We're going to get along just fine," says Kemp as he cocks the shotgun in his lap.

The ad drew backlash from around the country months after a gunman opened fire at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 people.

The backstory in Georgia

To understand the tension in this GOP gubernatorial primary requires some background — including an unlikely actor, Delta Air Lines.

Delta is Georgia's largest employer and is influential in state politics. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is Delta's North American hub and the busiest airport in the world.

When Delta decided to end a discount for travelers to the National Rifle Association convention, that didn't sit well with Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. So he killed a tax measure in the state legislature that would have saved Delta and other airlines about $30 million in taxes this year.

"We do have to stand up and fight and do it in a very respectful way, and this was our opportunity," Cagle said during a recent Fox News interview to talk about a spat he'd had with the airline.

Here's the catch; he's the leading candidate for governor in the Republican primary and his opponents are trying to stand out on gun rights too, says Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta.

Georgia's GOP controlled legislature has already ended many restrictions on firearms in the last decade (a 2014 law allows firearms in places like schools, bars, and churches. Last year, some places on public college campuses were opened up too.)

That said, policy proposals may not be the easiest way to gain notoriety, so Cagle's opponents, namely Kemp and Hill, have turned to provocative advertisements.

This may be "a gamble on the idea that the average Republican voter in a primary race is going to be more conservative and may be jazzed up about this particular issue," says Gillespie.

And in other state's Republican primaries, candidates have touted a pro-gun stance in hopes of gaining attention.

Students pushing for gun regulation react

Madeleine Deisen is a senior at a high school in suburban Atlanta where a month after the Parkland shooting, she helped organize a student walkout against gun violence.

Ads like the ones showing up in Georgia's GOP primary, Deisen says, will alienate young people like her.

"It just grosses me out, honestly."

Since the walkout at her high school, Deisen hasn't stopped pushing for tighter gun regulations. "Just things to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, things like banning bump stocks, red flag laws, those just seem so common sense to me," Deisen says.

Deisen lives in Georgia's Republican-controlled 6th Congressional District, where a 2017 special election was the most expensive House contest in U.S. history and where gun regulations are likely to be a prominent issue in this year's campaign.

For the second year in a row, the high school senior is an intern for a local Democratic candidate. This year, Deisen says, she's heard many in the party talking more about gun regulations on the campaign trail.

Deisen is just nine days too young to cast a ballot this year, but she's encouraging others to vote.

"People know me at school as the person that's always bugging people about voting, and is always like: 'Early voting! Register to vote!' " Deisen says.

The high school senior says she thinks her peers will show up to vote in bigger numbers than past years. "People who have never really talked about voting that much in the past have been talking about it more at school," she says.

Deisen will get her chance to vote soon, and she said as people her age grow older, they won't forget what politicians said this year about guns.

Copyright 2018 WABE 90.1. To see more, visit WABE 90.1.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The mass shooting earlier this year at a high school in Parkland, Fla., has altered the political landscape. It's made the debate over guns central to this year's elections. Some Democrats in more conservative states are speaking openly about their desire for more regulation. And some Republicans in competitive primaries are stressing their defense of gun rights. To get ahead in the polls, some of them are taking it to extremes. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Johnny Kauffman reports.

JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: If you're going to talk about the debate over guns in Georgia right now, you have to talk about Delta Air Lines. It's Georgia's largest employer, and it's pretty influential in state politics. After the Parkland shooting, Delta ended a discount for travelers to the NRA convention. Republican Casey Cagle did not like that. He's the lieutenant governor and killed a measure that would have helped Delta.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CASEY CAGLE: And we do have to stand up and fight and push back and do it in a very respectful way.

KAUFFMAN: Killing a potential tax break for Delta got Cagle this appearance on Fox News. It also won him the endorsement of the NRA. Cagle is running for governor. He's the frontrunner, and his Republican opponents are trying to stand out.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

BRIAN KEMP: I'm Brian Kemp. This is Jake, a young man interested in one of my daughters.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Jake) Yes, sir.

KAUFFMAN: In this ad, Kemp is sitting with his shotgun in his lap. The young man, Jake, is sitting next to him, and Jake reads off Kemp's policy platform. Then Kemp turns to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

KEMP: And two things if you're going to date one of my daughters...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Jake) Respect.

KEMP: And?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Jake) A healthy appreciation for the Second Amendment, sir.

KEMP: We're going to get along just fine.

KAUFFMAN: Kemp is Georgia's secretary of state. His ad drew a lot of backlash around the country. But that may help Kemp get the attention he needs, says Andra Gillespie. She's a political science professor at Emory University. In other Republican primaries, candidates are also trying to look more pro-gun than their opponents. Gillespie calls it...

ANDRA GILLESPIE: A gamble on the idea that the average Republican voter in a primary race is going to be more conservative and may be jazzed up about this particular issue because it is relevant in the news right now.

KAUFFMAN: But Madeleine Deisen says ads like Kemp's will alienate young people like her.

MADELEINE DEISEN: It just grosses me out, honestly. I know that's not super eloquent, but it just makes me feel gross.

KAUFFMAN: Deisen is a senior at a high school in suburban Atlanta. She helped organize a walkout there a month after the shooting in Parkland. Since then, Deisen hasn't stopped pushing for tighter gun regulations.

DEISEN: Just things like keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, things like banning bump stocks, things like red flag laws - those just seem so common sense to me.

KAUFFMAN: Deisen is an intern on a local Democrat's campaign, and she's encouraging her peers to get more politically involved. This year, she says, she's seen Democrats talking more about gun regulations on the campaign trail. And Gillespie, the professor at Emory, says that's not just happening in Georgia.

GILLESPIE: What you'll see is that there are Democrats who are running in somewhat more conservative places who may feel less inhibited about expressing the need for gun control.

KAUFFMAN: GOP governors in Florida and Vermont, for example, have signed gun control measures, and Gillespie says Republicans in some competitive areas may have to take similar positions if they want to win, especially if the students at the gun walkouts go to the polls. The high school senior Deisen thinks they will.

DEISEN: People know me at school as the person that's always bugging people about, like, voting and is always like early voting, register to vote. But, like, people who have never really talked about voting that much in the past have been talking about it more at school.

KAUFFMAN: Deisen is just nine days too young to vote this year. She's really bummed about it, but she says she'll get her chance soon. And as people her age get older, they won't forget what politicians said this year about guns. For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.