The passionate gun control rallies Saturday that brought out large crowds around the country sent a vivid signal that the issue is likely to play a major role in the 2018 midterm elections, and that Republicans could find themselves largely on the defensive on gun issues for the first time in decades.
The gun debate could play out very differently in House and Senate races, as Republicans strain to save suburban congressional districts where gun control is popular, and Democrats defend Senate seats in red states where the Second Amendment is sacrosanct.
But, in a year of extraordinary political intensity, and in the first national election of the Trump presidency, Republican and Democratic leaders say the gun issue appears to have become a potent rallying point for voters opposed to Mr. Trump and fed up with what they see as Washington’s indifference to mass shootings. The scale of demonstrations over the weekend was reminiscent of the Women’s March, earlier in Mr. Trump’s presidency, and underscored the intense energy of activists on the left ahead of the fall campaign.
The commitment of the young march organizers to keep the issue front and center makes it unlikely to fade before November. But they are certain to face considerable resistance from pro-gun forces, particularly the National Rifle Association, which has formidable financial resources at its disposal and a long record of successfully mobilizing conservatives and helping win elections.
Still, Republicans have already been struggling to keep their footing in densely populated suburbs where Mr. Trump is unpopular and the N.R.A. is an object of widespread scorn. The gun issue appears likely to deepen Republicans’ problems in these areas, further cleaving moderate, pocketbook-minded suburban voters from the party’s more hard-line rural base and raising the risks for Republicans in swing House districts around the country.
Gun control may be a complicated issue for Democrats, too, because of the makeup of the Senate races on the ballot in November. If Democrats have a path to capturing the House through mainly moderate, well-educated districts, they are also defending Senate seats in strongly conservative states, like West Virginia and North Dakota, and in Republican-leaning states like Missouri and Indiana, where pro-gun positions have long been safe political terrain.
But several prominent Republicans warned on Sunday that the party could end up alienating groups that tend to vote for candidates to the right of center if they are seen as unresponsive to the rising outcry around guns. In an atmosphere of frustration with Washington, inaction on guns could add to voters’ anger at entrenched lawmakers there.
Gov. John Kasich, Republican of Ohio, warned in a CNN interview on Sunday that voters “do want changes” on gun policy and Republicans were ignoring them at their peril.
“People should absolutely be held accountable at the ballot box,” said Mr. Kasich, a critic of Mr. Trump who is contemplating a run for president in 2020.
It is not only the Republican Party’s dwindling moderate wing that sees danger in the gun issue. Dan Eberhart, an energy executive and major conservative donor, said Republicans risked driving away suburban voters if they did not do more to defy the N.R.A.
Mr. Eberhart pointed to Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican with an A-plus N.R.A. rating for supporting the organization’s agenda. Mr. Scott, who is contemplating a bid for the Senate seat held by the Democrat Bill Nelson, signed incremental new gun regulations after last month’s shooting in Parkland, Fla., over the N.R.A.’s objections.
“Republicans are going to have to move a little to get 51 percent-plus in elections, and the N.R.A. will have to deal with it,” Mr. Eberhart said. “The N.R.A. is really out of step with suburban G.O.P. voters.”
While Democrats have little hope the demonstrations will lead quickly to legislation, they predict the broad-based outpouring of protest will increase pressure on Republicans. Addressing reporters on Sunday, Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader and Democrat of New York, said even Republicans in the “stranglehold” of the N.R.A. must be “smelling the change in the air.”
“This wasn’t Democrats only,” Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, said of the protests. “This was people just sick and tired of a ruling party that refuses to take action on something so morally urgent.”
Public opinion polls show powerful support for a range of gun measures, with overwhelming support for stricter background checks for gun purchasers and a smaller majority favoring an outright ban on assault-style weapons. A Fox News poll conducted last week found that three in five voters supported a ban on military-style weapons, while about nine in 10 supported universal background checks.
But the same poll found scant optimism among voters that Congress would act in accordance with their preferences: Only about a fifth of voters thought it was highly likely Congress would act.
The doubters are probably correct: There is relatively little time left on the congressional calendar this year, and the Republicans who control the House and Senate have shown no great appetite for tackling gun control. The $1.3 trillion spending bill that Mr. Trump signed on Friday included modest school safety measures and improvements to the background-checks system, but it did not include a number of more ambitious and popular measures, like raising the age requirement for purchasers of assault weapons.
And while the Justice Department announced last week that it would try to follow through on a promise to ban so-called bump stocks through regulation, Mr. Trump has not indicated that he intends to take any further executive action to address the issue.
Against a backdrop of plodding debate in Washington, a number of Democratic candidates in important races have already made prominent appeals to voters on the issue of gun violence, combining support for new gun restrictions with rhetorical denunciations of the N.R.A.
Several of the Democrats campaigning most assertively on firearm regulation are also competing in areas recently afflicted by gun massacres. In Nevada, Steve Sisolak, a leading Democratic candidate for governor, vowed in his first television commercial to “take on the N.R.A.” A member of the Clark County Commission, which includes Las Vegas, Mr. Sisolak was among the most visible officials responding to the mass shooting in October, which left 58 people dead and hundreds wounded.
Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democratic congressional candidate in South Florida, in a district not far from Parkland, said voters were fired up because of their horror at mass shootings and their outrage at congressional inaction.
“This is a symbol of everything that is wrong right now, that is happening in Washington, D.C.,” said Ms. Mucarsel-Powell, who is challenging Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Miami Republican.
Ms. Mucarsel-Powell, who marched against gun violence in Key West on Saturday, has aired commercials describing her personal experience with gun violence: When she was 24, her father was shot and killed in Ecuador.
Other Democrats have been more timid on gun issues, particularly in more rural and heavily white, working-class districts where broad gun rights are more popular. When Democrats won an upset victory in a Pennsylvania special election this month, in a heavily conservative congressional district outside Pittsburgh, they did so by nominating a distinctly moderate candidate, Conor Lamb, who favored improving the background checks system but did not back other popular gun restrictions.
Val DiGiorgio, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said that while Democrats won that special election, the race had shown “the passion of Second Amendment supporters.” But Mr. DiGiorgio said voters were also seeking remedies for gun violence.
“It’s clear that Americans on all sides of the debate are looking for solutions,” Mr. DiGiorgio said.
But the energy in the Democratic base is with those who favor gun restrictions.
While the colorful signs and pleading speeches of the students drew attention on Saturday, state and local Democratic parties across the country also used the marches to register voters and sign up volunteers.
In Florida, volunteers circulated at protests in over 30 cities, passing out “commit to vote” cards that the party can later use for voter turnout purposes. And in Virginia, Democrats descended on the cities where buses were departing to the Washington march to register voters.
The efforts were not confined to large liberal and swing states. In Columbia, S.C., the local Democratic Party used the march in the state’s capital to sign up voters for what could be a competitive governor’s race this fall. The liberal group Indivisible also used the protests to kick off a campaign pressuring members of Congress during the legislative recess.
Jim Hobart, a Republican pollster, said the marches illustrated the enormous energy of the Democratic base and revealed generational changes in the electorate that Republicans will have to grapple with.
“As we have seen in special elections, Democratic enthusiasm is already very high and the gun issue just adds to that,” Mr. Hobart said, noting that students in his hometown Atlanta had traveled by bus for 10 hours to join the march in Washington. “These same students are much more likely to not just vote, but volunteer.”