Gun control

Gun Safety Groups Face Uphill Battle In Face Of COVID-19

Two national gun control organizations are mounting an $8 million campaign to flip the Texas State House and elect “Gun Sense” members to Congress

Earlier this year, two national gun control organizations announced an unprecedented $8 million campaign. It’s aim: to flip the Texas State House of Representatives to the Democrats and elect what they called “Gun Sense” candidates to the U.S. House.

Then COVID-19 struck the state.

So how will the pandemic affect the campaign and the fall elections? 

Aimée Mobley Turney may not fit the image of a gun control activist – or gun safety activist, as she prefers. For starters, the head of Houston’s Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America chapter is herself a gun owner. She said her conversations with fellow gun owners often begin with them accusing her of wanting to take their guns away.

To this, she said she replies, “I have a .410 and a 20-gauge shotgun myself. [But] with my gun, it’s locked in a closet, and there’s no ammunition in the gun. The guns are for hunting. And I would hope that if you’re a gun owner that you’re storing your guns properly as well.”

Once she’s able to establish a common ground, Turney said she finds it’s easier to get gun owners to listen to her. She’s confident that she and others like her will be able to meet the national goals of Moms Demand Action and its partner, Everytown for Gun Safety. Turney became an activist after the Columbine mass shooting, and for years she wasn’t able to get any traction in Texas.

But she says with the string of mass shootings here, that’s changing. She cited an internal poll conducted by Global Strategy Group and Everytown for Gun Safety, that showed 86% of Texas voters support background checks on all gun sales.

“But a majority of Texans don’t believe that elected officials have done enough to prevent mass shootings,” Turney added. 

The two national organizations claim to have 400,000 grassroots volunteers in Texas. In the Houston area, they’re looking to flip eight state house seats and three U.S. house seats. They also aim to protect gains from the 2018 election.

But gun rights groups are pushing back.

Beto O’Rourke’s popularity was a wake-up call, said Mike Cox, a Hill Country rancher and the legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association.

“This is something we have been preparing for since the 2018 election losses,” Cox said. “We lost 12 [State] House of Representatives members as a result of that race. All those seats are now occupied by anti-gun Democrats. Getting those seats back is our focus.”

Now the COVID-19 pandemic could upend things. For one thing, public events and door knocking are out. Phone banking and social media may make up some of the difference. But then there’s the question of how focused voters will be on issues other than survival and the economy.

Elizabeth Simas, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said not very.

“Gun control regulations are an interesting thing. Public opinion in support of them tends to spike any time there is a major incident or a mass shooting of some sort,” Simas said, “and if schools aren’t in session, if people aren’t having large meetings in churches and in shopping malls and concerts and all these other places, then we’re not having mass shootings.”

Added to that is, in the wake of the pandemic, gun and ammunition sales are spiking.

“We view this preparation [as] reasonable and predictable,” said Cox, of the TSRA. “How many first responders will become infected? Will anybody come if we call 911?” 

Aimée Mobley Turney said she doesn’t want to be dismissive of anyone purchasing guns right now because of concerns about their safety.

But she’s convinced that she and her fellow activists will make the difference. 

“Anybody running for office should look at Virginia,” said Turney. “Six months after that shooting in Virginia Beach that left 12 people dead and four people injured, the Virginia State House legislators who failed to support gun safety were voted out of office by a bloc of largely suburban voters.”

The Texas campaign is targeting the Houston and Dallas suburbs, areas politically and demographically similar to those that flipped in Virginia in 2019.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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