Do Gun Owners Want Gun Control? Yes, Some Say, Post-Parkland

Tom Galinat at his home in Peacham, Vt. Mr. Galinat signed a letter to lawmakers, urging them to expand background checks for gun purchases.

Tom Galinat, 35, a farmer and hunter who owns nine guns, traveled last month from his home in Peacham, Vt., to Montpelier, the state capital, with a firm goal in mind: Convince lawmakers to enact a ban on high-capacity magazines.

Jonathan Leach, 56, a policy analyst in Augusta, Me., and the owner of about 10 guns, testified before Maine legislators in favor of a bill to let judges order people deemed dangerous to surrender their firearms. Mr. Leach said he wanted to serve as a counterweight to gun rights enthusiasts he knew would speak against the idea.

And as thousands of demonstrators gathered in Nashville in March for student-led marches against gun violence, R. Sterling Haring, 33, a doctor and the owner of several guns including an assault-style rifle, addressed the crowd. When wounded children were flown to his hospital after a shooting at a Kentucky school in January, he said, he decided it was his duty to push for stronger gun control.

“I honestly believe that God-fearing, gun-owning Americans should be leading the debate on gun laws,” Dr. Haring said in an interview on Monday, after learning of another shooting, which killed four people at a Waffle House a few miles from his house. “It just makes sense to me that if I own weapons, I should be the first one to be advocating for safety with those weapons.”

As young survivors of the Parkland shooting lead efforts to tighten limits on firearms, they have met deep resistance from strong supporters of gun rights, and both sides have dug in. But the renewed national gun debate — reignited again after the shooting in the Nashville Waffle House — has gotten the attention of a subset of people who are often overlooked: gun control supporters who own guns.

Many of these gun owners will never take part in marches or make public speeches. But interviews with two dozen gun owners around the country found what polls have shown — that many of them are firm supporters of some gun control measures. In recent weeks, some have grown more vocal, holding signs at demonstrations, lobbying lawmakers or writing letters to the editor, adding their voices to those of the protesting students.

Of the 60 million to 70 million Americans who own guns, measuring how many are likely to take part in activism in favor of gun control or to change their political choices over the issue is difficult. One rough proxy for those who do not want tougher gun laws could be the five million gun owners the National Rifle Association claims as members, said Robert Spitzer, the chairman of the political science department at the State University of New York at Cortland, who has written extensively about gun policy and politics.

The N.R.A. is staunchly opposed to new gun control measures, and events following the Parkland shooting may have deepened the resolve of its supporters. In March, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission, the N.R.A. Political Victory Fund raised $2.35 million — the highest monthly amount raised for the fund in records dating back to 2003, according to an analysis by the news outlet McClatchy and verified by The New York Times. The N.R.A. did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Only a small number of gun owners seem to be stepping forward in activism in favor of stricter gun laws, and not all agree about which laws should be toughened. But advocacy groups that support increased gun control say they sense a new kind of participation in more subtle ways, such as calls from gun owners wanting to know what the groups do, and a greater willingness to listen. The shift could also have political implications: Some gun owners said they are now paying closer attention to which political candidates receive money from the N.R.A., which takes a hard line against firearm limits.

After the Parkland shooting, Lindsey Donovan, an Army veteran in Georgia who is a member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said she began getting calls and inquiries from distant corners of that state, including gun shop owners in tiny towns “wanting to talk about what it is we are about.” Conversations about gun restrictions with friends in the military, she said, seemed to grow more searching and less combative.

“They are not shutting me down anymore,” Ms. Donovan said.

Before Parkland, her organization in Georgia had five local groups. Now there are 12. Around 1,800 people showed up to the organization’s annual advocacy day in Atlanta in late February, up from 150 last year. And local chapter meetings used to draw around 30 people on any given night. Now it’s often more than 100 showing up.

Dr. Spitzer said gun owners who favor gun limits reflect an often-silent middle who could be powerful allies for gun control groups.

“It’s a dog that doesn’t bark,” he said. “It’s a voice that’s not heard.”

Long before Parkland, he said, gun owners who are not members of the N.R.A. have tended to see things differently than members. A 2009 survey by Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, found that 30 percent of N.R.A. members supported a ban on assault weapons, compared with 47 percent of gun owners who were not members — closer to the views of the general public in such polls.

Survey data has long shown gun owners to be broadly supportive of some restrictions on firearms. Polling just after the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland suggested a small uptick in support for stronger gun laws in gun-owning households. A poll by Quinnipiac University between Feb. 16 and 19 found that 50 percent of respondents in gun-owning households supported stricter gun laws — a figure that was seven percentage points higher than when people were asked the same question last December. In February, 97 percent of respondents in gun-owning households said they supported background checks for all gun buyers, compared with 94 percent in December. (The 1994 Brady Bill created a requirement for gun buyers to pass a background check, but the rule does not apply to private sellers online or at gun shows.)

With the N.R.A. opposed to expanding background checks, gun control groups have focused on the issue as a way to reach out to gun owners.

When the gun control advocacy organization founded by Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who in 2011 was shot in the head during an event with constituents, wanted to marshal support for a raft of proposed gun laws in Vermont, the organization worked with a local consultant, who reached out to gun owners. Before long, 61 gun owners in the state, including Mr. Galinat, had signed on to a letter to lawmakers, urging them to expand background checks.

“I’m an ardent advocate for the Second Amendment, and none of those gun safety measures threaten any of those things that I believe in,” said Mr. Galinat, who also went to Montpelier for a news conference on the issue. He said his only quibble with the letter, which was written by the consultant and a local gun safety group, was that he wanted lawmakers to set even stronger gun limits.

Some gun owners said the Parkland shooting motivated them to be more vocal about their support for background checks, or about long simmering discontent with the N.R.A.

“What put me over the edge was this series of recent tragedies, both in schools and in other areas, and they just never budged,” John S. Liccardi said of the N.R.A. Mr. Liccardi, 73, a hunter from Rutland, Vt., who owns several guns, stepped publicly into the gun debate for the first time in March. He denounced the N.R.A. in an op-ed for the news website VTDigger.

“If there ever is going to be any progress in sensible gun ownership and control,” Mr. Liccardi said, “it has to be from the middle ground.”

Some members of gun-owning families have entered the debate hesitantly. Karen Fowkes from Vienna, Va., joined a sea of people at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., last month. Her husband owned a gun, she said, and she initially worried about feeling hypocritical, but joined her daughter, Colleen, at the march after some convincing.

“I said, ‘Mom, this is not an anti-gun march,’” the younger Ms. Fowkes said. “I asked, ‘Are you for universal background checks?’ She said, ‘Yes.’”

To that, the younger Ms. Fowkes told her mother, “You are for gun control, too!”

But for other gun owners, the marches had the opposite effect.

“I have a little bit more trepidation now,” said Rob Mason, 47, an educational aide at a high school in Maineville, Ohio, outside Cincinnati, who owns several guns and practices shooting with his children at a range. “It seems like it’s going too far.”

Mr. Mason, who is not an N.R.A. member, said he supports universal background checks. But he is uncomfortable with the notion of an assault-rifle ban. His daughter, Grace, who is 16, went to a march in Ohio. He was proud she participated. But he also felt worried. The marchers’ demands seemed fluid and ill-defined, raising the worry that the young people simply wanted to ban all guns.

“As a moderate, I’m like, ‘Hmmm, are they really just pushing for one type of gun to be banned, or are they pushing for everything?’” Mr. Mason said. “The protesters are not talking to me. I don’t think they believe that there are people like me out there.”

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