By: Save Democracy AZ
Read the full Arizona Daily Star article here
The statistics are sobering. The U.S. leads the developed world in mass shootings. The U.S. rate of death per 100,000 people from gun violence is eight times the Canadian rate and nearly 100 times the rate in the United Kingdom. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released updated official mortality data which showed 45,222 firearm related deaths in the U.S. in 2020, a new high, and the New England Journal of Medicine reports that firearm homicides are now the leading cause of death among U.S. children and adolescents, surpassing motor vehicle accidents.
Given the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, and Tulsa there are renewed calls for our elected officials to do something to address escalating gun violence. Polls show that almost 90% of Americans support red flag laws and closing background check loopholes, yet even such commonsense gun control measures are dead on arrival in the Arizona legislature. As recently as May 31, 2022, all 16 Arizona Senate Republicans voted against a measure that would require background checks for all firearm purchases. Why is that? We don’t profess to have all the answers regarding gun violence, but we have a pretty good idea why popular commonsense measures to address gun violence fail.
The way a representative democracy is supposed to work is each legislative and congressional district elects the candidate that is the choice of most voters but represents all constituents in the district, including those who voted for another candidate.
But that’s not how it works.
Not all eligible voters are registered to vote, and not all registered voters vote, especially in primary elections.
In Arizona’s 2020 elections, which had historically high voter turnout (80% of registered voters voted in the general election), only 36% of registered voters voted in the primary elections, with approximately half (18%) voting in the Democratic Primary and half (18%) voting in the Republican Primary. Twenty-five of Arizona’s 30 legislative districts (83%) are dominated by either Republican registered voters or Democratic registered voters and are considered “noncompetitive.” The candidate who wins the primary election in a noncompetitive district is always going to prevail in the November general election. So less than 20% of the voters select over 80% of our legislators. That means that in most Arizona districts if you only vote in the general election, your vote does not count.
And who are these primary voters? Typically, primary voters are older and more ideologically partisan. So, the typical playbook for a Republican candidate is to treat the far-right primary voter base as the only important constituency and the typical playbook for a Democratic candidate is to keep the far-left primary voter base happy.
The result is predictable. Elected Republicans cannot vote for commonsense gun control measures without incurring the wrath of party leaders and the Republican base and being thrown out of office in the next primary election, and elected Democrats are more incentivized to appeal to the Democratic base by demonizing their Republican colleagues than to work constructively on compromise gun control reforms.
The case of Congressman Chris Jacobs of New York is illustrative of what happens to a Republican who has the audacity to express support for commonsense gun control measures. Jacobs is a Republican representing suburban Buffalo and a Second Amendment supporter who was endorsed by the NRA. However, following the deadly mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde he voiced support for limits on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. In a week his political career was over. Party leaders withdrew their support for his reelection campaign, and he was publicly lambasted for “caving to the gun-grabbers” by Donald Trump Jr. Shortly thereafter, realizing he had no way to win his Republican primary race, Jacobs abandoned his reelection campaign and announced “We have a problem in our country in terms of both our major parties. If you stray from a party position, you are annihilated.” Jacobs continued “For the Republicans, it became pretty apparent to me over the last week that that issue is gun control. Any gun control.”
Since supporting sensible gun control measures is political suicide for an Arizona Republican running for statewide office or in a noncompetitive legislative race, it is wishful thinking to believe anything will change unless we reform our election system. Replacing taxpayer funded partisan party primary elections with open nonpartisan primaries would treat all candidates and all voters equally and allow candidates to focus on solutions to our problems instead of partisan primary voters and party leaders. If you are interested in learning more about the nonpartisan movement, please check out our web site at savedeomcracyaz.com.
Sarah Brown Smallhouse is president of the Thomas R Brown Foundations, Don Budinger is chairman of Rodel Foundation of Arizona, Ted Hinderaker is a founding member of Hinderaker, Rauh and Weisman law firm, and Si Schorr is a senior partner (retired) of Lewis Roca law firm.