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A pro-gun Democrat could win in Trump country. Where does that leave gun control activism?

The Democratic dilemma on guns in 2018.

Democratic Conor Lamb Campaigns For Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District Special Election Drew Angerer/Getty Images

If you want an illustration of the current Democratic dilemma on guns, look no further than the special congressional election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, which will be decided on Tuesday.

Recent polls show Democrat Conor Lamb running neck and neck with his Republican opponent Rick Saccone. Democrats are looking at an improbable prospect: Lamb could win a deeply red district that Democrats were never even supposed to be competitive in. And part of the reason he might be doing so well is his pro-gun messaging.

Lamb’s first campaign ad featured footage of him shooting an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle at a gun range, with the narrator voiceover saying the candidate “still loves to shoot.”

Republicans have been trying furiously to attack Lamb on the gun issue, painting him as someone who will pursue aggressive gun control policies if elected to Congress. But he’s not giving them a lot of ammunition to work with. A US Marine Corps veteran, Lamb is on the record as not supporting additional gun control measures.

The outcome of the 18th Congressional District special election in Pennsylvania is relatively low-stakes — it won’t alter which party controls Congress, and the winner will have to run again in November in a completely different district. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the old congressional district lines were a partisan gerrymander and ordered new lines redrawn for the fall election.

But it does serve as proof of concept: Lamb is a conservative Democrat with a decent chance of winning a deeply conservative Republican district.

As Democrats try to win back the House in 2018, they’re going to need candidates like Lamb in the mix. Democrats want to be competitive in districts like his — Rust Belt areas that have voted blue in the past but turned to Trump in 2016.

But that’s putting the party in a tricky position amid a fresh wave of anti-gun activism led by student survivors of the Parkland, Florida, shooting last month. Though there are just four Democratic members of Congress who accepted donations from the National Rifle Association in 2016 — Reps. Sanford Bishop (GA), Henry Cuellar (TX), Collin Peterson (MN), and Tim Walz (MN) — the party’s base is still frustrated with a lack of action on gun control measures. And progressive groups are pushing for tighter gun laws.

At least one of those lawmakers, Walz, has been convinced to shut out the NRA. The congressman, now running for Minnesota governor, donated his past contributions to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund after the Las Vegas shooting and vowed to not accept NRA money in the future, according to a campaign staffer.

If they can pull off a win in 2018, Democrats could be in a position to vote on gun legislation — whether it’s strengthening background checks or calling for a full-on assault weapons ban. Who makes up the caucus will determine what kind of legislation gets voted on.

Is gun control a winning electoral issue? More candidates seem to think so.

For many years, lots of Democrats in redder-leaning districts and states have been hesitant to campaign on the issue of gun control for fear of alienating constituents.

But in the wake of Parkland, more Democratic candidates have been calling for gun control. The gun control advocacy group Giffords (started by former Rep. Gabby Giffords) has been tracking candidate tweets and videos that relate to gun control. After Parkland and other mass shootings, Giffords’s political director Isabelle James said there was a noticeable spike in candidates going further than “thoughts and prayers” and instead calling for policies to prevent mass shootings.

“The fact of the matter is that candidates are realizing gun safety is a winning issue across the country,” she said. “Not because it’s the right issue, but because it’s a winning issue.”

NRA donations are also emerging as a political issue. In a Colorado congressional race, candidate Jason Crow — one of the Democrats running in a primary to challenge Republican Rep. Mike Coffman — started running ads attacking Coffman’s donations from the gun lobby and his lack of action on guns.

With the rise of shootings in schools, as well as other “safe” spaces like festivals, churches, and movie theaters, James says she thinks the issue will resonate in 2018. She believes the majority of voters are starting to consider gun violence as a personal issue that impacts them.

“That was something that started in 2017,” she said. “Parkland has perhaps made gun safety the defining issue of the 2018 midterms.”

James is joined in this sentiment by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who represents the state where the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre took place. Noting that more than 90 percent of voters support universal background checks, Murphy recently told reporters he believes gun control is something Democrats can win on in 2018.

“Have you been watching the polls? This can win in every single state in every single district,” he told reporters a few weeks ago.

Others in the Democratic Party aren’t so sure

Not everyone in the party is on board; some are still urging caution around the gun issue, especially as the party is looking to pick up seats in redder areas in 2018.

The Democratic Party’s official platform calls for expanding and strengthening background checks and closing loopholes that allow people with mental illness or those with records of domestic violence to buy guns. It also discusses a goal of keeping assault weapons “off our streets” but does not mention any type of assault weapons ban that some individual candidates are calling for.

Last fall, Democratic Party operatives told candidates to temper their initial statements after the deadly Las Vegas shooting at a country music festival. A day after the October 1 shooting, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) regional spokesperson sent out an email telling 2018 candidates members of their staff not to “politicize” the shooting. The email was first reported by HuffPost’s Daniel Marans.

“You and your candidate will be understandably outraged and upset, as will your community. However, DO NOT POLITICIZE IT TODAY,” DCCC regional press secretary Evan Lukaske wrote. “There will be time for politics and policy discussion, but any message today should be on offering thoughts/prayers for victims and their families, and thanking 1st responders who saved lives.”

Sentiment like that has frustrated lawmakers like Murphy, who tweeted angrily after the Las Vegas shooting: “To my colleagues: your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers.”

When reporters asked him about the DCCC email after it was released in Feburary, Murphy’s tone was more measured, emphasizing that the message came from “one staffer.”

Still, he added, “No Democrat should be worried about talking about policy changes in the wake of these mass shootings.”

Murphy himself is a co-sponsor on a bill called the Fix NICS Act, which aims to tighten the FBI’s existing background check system. Many agencies consistently fail to report criminal records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and this bill would increase enforcement of the rule and give states financial incentives to report.

But even though Murphy’s name is on the bill, he recently joined a group of Senate Democrats saying Fix NICS shouldn’t even be brought up unless Republicans guarantee votes on more comprehensive gun control measures like universal background checks.

“Fix NICS is not enough,” Murphy told reporters. “This unprecedented wave of public support for changing our gun laws is not going to be satisfied by the Fix NICS Act.”

In the current Republican-controlled Congress, Fix NICS is a long shot but likely the best Democrats can hope for.

That could change after 2018. What remains to be seen is whether the new Democratic candidates elected to Congress will actually support new gun control policies like the ones Murphy and others are calling for.

Correction: A previous version of this article said Sen. Chris Murphy tweeted after a DCCC email on guns leaked in February. Murphy’s tweet was sent in October 2017, not February.

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