How Gun Control Divides, And Unites, Western Pennsylvania Voters
Gun sales and gun violence have increased during the coronavirus pandemic, but the issue has been largely absent from the 2020 campaign. For WESA’s Split Ticket series, we’re following four Western Pennsylvania voters for a year, asking them about the issues that could sway their decision at the ballot box.
This month, they weighed in on firearms. But while they shared common ground on some changes to gun laws, the gun debate is still divisive.
‘We can’t kill the virus with a gun’
Getting the pandemic under control is Democrat Linda Bishop’s top priority as a voter. But controlling guns isn’t far behind. Especially since more people in her town of Mars, Pa. have been buying guns.
“Which is very unfortunate because we certainly can't kill the virus with a gun,” she said.
Linda is in her sixties and retired. She wants to see background checks for every gun sale, an idea she thinks Republicans could support as well. Linda said the cause may have been helped when the public saw armed protesters in Harrisburg demanding the economy be reopened.
“There's wide support for Second Amendment rights in this area,” she said. “Republican candidates just simply say, ‘Second Amendment – we don't want to pass any gun reforms.’ But for Democratic candidates and Democratic voters, it's a little more complicated than that. I've talked to people about the protests that occurred at the state capitol, with the men carrying guns … to demand that the state legislature reopen the economy. Gun owners I’ve spoken to don’t approve of that tactic.”
Linda was thrilled when New York’s Attorney General sued to dissolve the NRA over alleged financial misconduct.
“There isn't a Republican who feels safe or supporting even the most common-sense type of gun reform because they're afraid of that grade that they'll get from the NRA.,” she said.
Progressive Democrat Savannah Henry was a high school senior in Erie when a gunman killed 17 students and teachers at a Parkland Florida high school in 2018.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the first mass shooting of my lifetime,” she said. “But because I was the same age as them and just seeing that happen ... it wasn’t something I could ignore.”
Savannah helped organize a walkout at her high school to protest gun violence, and went to the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. She’s a junior now at the University of Pittsburgh, but said the threat of another shooting is always in the back of her mind.
“I'll be in a big lecture, and I think it's just a thought that crosses your mind: You think, ‘Oh, how would I get out of here if there was a shooter?’ But I think because my generation is used to it, it's just unfortunately the reality. So you should have those thoughts.”
Savannah supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, but she and Linda agree on far-reaching changes like bans on assault weapons.
In fact, all four of our voters support expanding background checks, which polling shows has broad bipartisan support. But changes beyond that are less popular for Republicans.
More Guns In Schools?
Mary Henze is in her fifties, lives in Jefferson Hills, and has been on disability for about a decade.
“You take away guns, you bring on a socialist economy, you're really going to see what hell is,” she said.
She grew up hunting, and she bought a gun after her house was robbed.
“I will not give up my gun and if necessary, I will use it,” she said. “I highly suggest no one enters my home without notice.”
Mary also thinks guns should be readily present in schools.
“The school shootings are in the zones that [Joe Biden] made as gun free,” she said.
In 1990, then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden sponsored the Crime Control Act, which banned most firearms in schools.
“Schools should have officials and security that hold guns,” said Mary. “And teachers in the buildings should have the right to carry.”
Republican Ed Cwiklinski of Bethel Park agreed.
“If we're going to say that teachers can't have firearms in a safe place in the school and principals can't have firearms in the school, then this is the best we can do,” he said.
He acknowledged that there have been school shootings – like the tragedy in Parkland, Florida – where there was an armed school resource officer present.
“Yeah, he chickened out and ran away,” said Ed, a gun owner himself, who is in his forties and works in information security.
Ed’s party has stood its ground amid calls for gun reform. In the past, President Trump has accused other Republicans -- including Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey -- of being afraid of the NRA. But he's done little to advance gun control in office. Last week's Republican Convention featured a couple who recently brandished firearms at Black Lives Matter protesters. The Democratic convention, meanwhile, featured gun-control supporters alongside victims of gun violence.
But Ed gets frustrated when guns are only portrayed as dangerous.
“Firearms get a bad rap because they can be used as instruments of destruction,” he said. “However, it's very unreported how often someone with a firearm has stopped bad guys or bad girls in their tracks.”
People who want to commit mass violence, he says, will find a way to do it.