Like many liberals, Lara Smith considers herself a feminist, favors abortion rights and believes the nation’s immigration policies under the Trump administration have just been “vile.”
But when it comes to guns, Smith sounds more like a conservative: She opposes reviving the nation’s assault weapons ban, enacting red-flag laws or creating a registry of firearms. The 48-year-old California lawyer owns a cache of firearms, from pistols to rifles such as the AR-15.
Smith and liberal gun owners like her face a quandary as voting in the Democratic primary intensifies with Super Tuesday next week. They are nervous about some of the gun control measures the Democratic candidates are pushing and are unsure who to trust on this issue.
“You’re alienating a huge part of your constituency,” Smith says of the Democratic field’s gun proposals. “You have a huge constituency that is looking for something different and when you are talking about restricting a right which is so different than everything else you talk about, you are being anti-liberal.”
Gun owners have long been seen as a solidly Republican voting bloc, but there are millions of Democrats who own firearms, too.
Many of them are feeling increasingly disillusioned by their party as it lurches toward the left on the Second Amendment, but they’re also wary of President Donald Trump for a variety of reasons: his conservative leanings but a track record in office that has led to several gun restrictions, such as the banning of bump stocks.
An estimated 23% of Democrats nationally lived in households with guns in 2018, according to the General Social Survey, which is conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. And roughly 20% of gun owners — about 12 million people — identify as liberal, according to results from survey between 2014 and 2018. More than a third describe themselves as moderates while just under 45% call themselves conservatives.
The liberals who are opposed to gun control are at odds with a broader trend among Democrats when it comes to tougher firearms restrictions. According to polling by Gallup last year, 88% of Democrats said laws governing firearm sales should be made more strict, up from 77% in 2015 and 63% in 2010.
The political dilemma for Democratic gun owners grew when former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg entered the campaign. Bloomberg heads one of the most politically active gun control groups and has spent vast sums of money pushing his agenda in races around the country.
All the Democrats running for president are seeking one form or another of gun restrictions. But current frontrunner Sen. Bernie Sanders finds himself under attack for being too pro gun. Bloomberg launched an attack on Sanders’ gun record this week, noting he had been endorsed by the NRA earlier in his career and balked at expanding background checks.
The candidates brought up guns on several occasions during Tuesday’s debate in South Carolina, held in the city that lived through the mass murder of nine black church goers by a white supremacist in 2015.
David Yamane, a sociology professor at Wake Forest University who studies American gun culture, said polarization over the issue began in the 1970s in the wake of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which was enacted amid national outcry over the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Subsequent efforts by the NRA to seize on gun rights as a partisan issue only heightened the divide.
Before that, gun politics wasn’t divided so sharply on political lines. One Democratic president, John F. Kennedy, was actually a member of the National Rifle Association.
Liberal gun owners, Yamane said, are generally newer to gun ownership and are less likely to be the stereotypical face of gun owners: older, white men. It’s a dynamic that doesn’t “get as much play because the public/political ‘face’ of gun owners for many remains Wayne LaPierre,” the firebrand leader of the NRA.
Yamane himself is part of the Democratic gun-loving public, describing himself as a “liberal snowflake gun owner.”
Kat Ellsworth, from Chicago, was firmly against firearms and favored gun-control until just a few years ago, when she went with a friend to a gun range and discovered a love for guns and shooting.
As she looks at the upcoming election, she’s torn as a self-described liberal and registered Democrat. With the Illinois primary approaching in mid-March, she is leaning toward Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, two candidates whose gun-control positions she doesn’t believe are all that rigid.
“They were both slower than others to develop and make public their proposals for gun control policies, and I believe the reason is that both of them are really not as anti-gun as they are forced to show publicly,” she said.
If she could give Democratic presidential candidates any advice, she said, it would be this: “I feel like they would really gain a lot more votes if they would just drop the gun-control crap.”
The Democratic stance on guns is directed at multiple constituencies — suburban voters horrified by school shootings and urban voters fed up with gun violence in their neighborhoods.
When it comes to black voters, Kevin Dixie sees guns in a different light. An African American, Dixie grew up in St. Louis and experienced firsthand the toll of gun violence.
He believes that gun rights are about empowering communities of color and ensuring freedom is available to every American, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender. He runs a firearms training business called No Other Choice.
One of his aims is to turn around the perception of firearms, especially within minority and urban communities, as being something that is only for criminals or police.
“This is much deeper than guns,” Dixie said. “It’s not just about owning a gun, it’s about maintaining your freedom, and we shouldn’t be politicizing it.”
Less than a week before the California primary, Smith is still unsure who she’ll vote for. At the top of her list are Sanders and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, two candidates she believes gun owners could at least have a conversation with. But she worries about the impact a Bloomberg candidacy might have on the Democratic field, pushing them even more vigorously toward gun-control.
“I think liberal gun owners have no good choice here,” she said.