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In a shift, most Georgia voters call for gun control restrictions

ATLANTA -- A broad majority of likely Georgia primary voters want stricter gun control measures, including a growing number of Republicans who break ranks with their party leaders by calling for more limits on firearm sales, according to a pair of polls conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News.

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Greg Bluestein
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- A broad majority of likely Georgia primary voters want stricter gun control measures, including a growing number of Republicans who break ranks with their party leaders by calling for more limits on firearm sales, according to a pair of polls conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News.

The polls of likely GOP and Democratic primary voters conducted by the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs suggest a shift in attitudes among Republicans after mass shootings in Las Vegas and at a Florida high school drew intense attention to gun laws and led to student-led protest marches across the nation.

In perhaps the most striking finding, 45 percent of likely Republican primary voters who were questioned April 19-26 want stricter rules covering the sale of firearms and 46 percent want those rules to stay the same. Only 7 percent of respondents want to loosen gun regulations to make it easier to buy firearms.

It suggests Georgia Republicans could find common ground on the debate across the aisle. A separate AJC/Channel 2 poll released last week showed roughly 90 percent of likely Democratic primary voters want stricter firearms regulations and only a handful -- about 6 percent -- want the gun laws to stay the same.

"Is the ability to possess an AR-15 the biggest problem that affects Georgia? No. Rural blight is a problem. Education is a problem. The economy is a problem," said Jon Macon, a conservative voter from southeast Georgia. "And the candidates need to talk about that instead."

The findings mirror recent national surveys that show support for tougher gun control laws has soared after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, left 17 dead. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in March found that nearly 7 in 10 adults -- and half of Republicans -- favor stricter gun measures.

Some Republicans facing tight races in other states have backed gun restrictions, and Florida lawmakers responded to the shooting by adopting a law to raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21, extend the waiting period to buy firearms to three days, and boost funding for school police officers and mental health services.

But no prominent GOP politician in Georgia has staked a position calling for significant new limits on firearm sales. In fact, the leading Republican candidates for the state's top office are racing to outflank each other on the issue.

One GOP candidate for governor, former state Sen. Hunter Hill, swiftly backtracked after suggesting he would raise the minimum age limit to buy assault weapons to 21. A rival, executive Clay Tippins, branded him "Benedict Arnold" -- a notorious traitor -- over his remarks.

The state's leading Democrats, meanwhile, have decisively embraced gun control. The party's top candidates once jockeyed for support from the National Rifle Association and called themselves pro-gun Democrats. Now, the two contenders at the top of the ticket -- Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans -- feud over just how vigorously each will fight the NRA if elected governor.

And many left-leaning voters are egging them on, encouraged by the state party's recent shift.

"Gun control has to be our priority -- not gun rights," said Dawn Brown, a 55-year-old attorney from East Point. "There has to be new limits on the kinds of guns we sell, the kinds of ammunition we sell and who gets to buy them. The NRA has long been driving the gun agenda, and it shouldn't decide who should have guns."

'100 percent'

The poll showed anything but consensus on the most polarizing personality in Georgia politics today: President Donald Trump.

Only 7 percent of likely Democratic voters approve of his job performance in the White House, compared with 80 percent of Republicans. The "Never Trump" movement in Georgia has long since petered out, at least among elected officials, and many Republican voters indicated that loyalty to the president will be key to their votes.

About three-quarters of Democrats said opposing Trump would be an important or very important factor in casting their vote. And about the same proportion of Republicans said support for the president would help determine their position.

"It 100 percent matters to me. Whoever represents me and my state must be very closely aligned to Trump's values and his stand on illegal immigrants," said Brooke Williams, a 36-year-old from Macon who is temporarily out of work. "I'm a very conservative Republican, and I want whoever is representing me to be as closely aligned to Trump as possible."

Many Democrats who hope to channel anger toward the president into November election gains are insisting on a candidate who opposes the president at every turn.

"I'm doing everything I can to make sure his policies are not in any way enabled, enforced. I am very strongly opposed to almost everything he has done," said Brown, the attorney. "That's a huge factor. We've made a lot of strides in the last eight or nine years, and they're being gutted."

Voters were also largely split over the $1.6 trillion tax overhaul that congressional Republicans passed without a single Democratic vote. The GOP hopes that beleaguered incumbents can capitalize on the plan in the midterm, while Democrats say it mostly benefits large corporations.

The polls shows the divide also extends to voters' bank accounts. Only 1 in 5 Democrats say their take-home pay has increased since the tax law went into effect at the beginning of the year, while 40 percent of Republicans say their paychecks have jumped.

No 'mass movement'?

The gun lobby has played an outsized role in the May 22 primary, thanks to a very public tiff between the NRA and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines.

After Delta ended a discounted rate program for NRA members, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle led a vote in the Legislature to exact political revenge on the airline by stripping a lucrative tax break on jet fuel sales.

That move helped Cagle, the GOP front-runner for governor, win the NRA's endorsement -- and warnings from critics that he sacrificed short-term political gain to snub the state's largest private employer. And it sent other GOP candidates scrambling to shore up their chops on gun rights.

Hill, a former U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, trumpeted his "A" rating from the NRA last week and aired an ad filmed at a gun range that showed him shooting through a far-off target. And Secretary of State Brian Kemp -- in a close race with Hill for second place in the GOP primary -- touted support from NRA backers.

Veteran Georgia Republican operatives point to the rhetoric as proof that GOP sentiment on gun control is not easy to pin down. More Republican voters may support new firearms limits, but it's not necessarily a high priority for them, conservative pollster Mark Rountree said.

"I don't think that you'll see a mass movement in Georgia because there's not a big constituency of people demanding gun control in a GOP primary," Rountree said. "In three months, we could be talking about roads or trains or some other issue. This isn't a singular issue in Republican politics -- not like Obamacare was in 2010."

And the NRA remains a force to contend with in GOP politics. Though a resounding majority of Democrats gave the gun lobby a negative rating, nearly 3 in 4 GOP voters said they approved of the group.

That was the take from Bob Poole, a 52-year-old mechanic who blamed Delta for caving to "social activists" and picking a fight with the gun lobby.

"It was a circus!" he said of the fallout over that Delta-NRA fight, before wondering why guns should be restricted because some abuse them.

"No new gun control rules is very important to me," he said. "I don't blame the car for the drunk driver. There's truth to that cliche."

Greg Bluestein writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: gbluestein(at)

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