This Colorado Democrat thinks he can run on gun control — and win

Colorado’s Sixth Congressional District has been the site of two high-profile and deadly mass shootings: Columbine and Aurora. Right now, it’s represented by Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, but a Democratic House candidate thinks he can beat Coffman in November by running a campaign to end gun violence.

Attorney and Army veteran Jason Crow still has to win his primary on June 26, but he has the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the gun control advocacy group started by former Rep. Gabby Giffords.

Democrats have been eyeing CO-6 for years, and the district is on the DCCC’s “red to blue” list to flip this year. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the district D+2, and Hillary Clinton won it by 9 points in 2016. Yet Coffman, the incumbent Republican, has managed to hang on to his seat since he was elected nearly a decade ago.

Crow thinks he can beat Coffman by aggressively campaigning on an issue Democrats have shied away from in the past: gun control.

“It’s now gotten to the point where this constant flow of shootings in the country has now impacted people where we think about this all the time,” Crow told me in a recent interview. “Loud noises happen in a crowd and at public events, and instead of people thinking about, ‘Maybe someone dropped something,’ people think about a gun.”

Crow is quick to mention his background as a hunter and his extensive military experience when he’s talking to constituents who are skeptical of gun control efforts.

“I say, ‘I grew up a hunter and I know about firearms,’” he said. “I’m not coming to this issue as somebody that’s never used them and doesn’t know anything about them. I’m not trying to take away law-abiding citizens’ gun rights, and I’m not trying to take away the Second Amendment.”

In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting in February, Coffman has had some tense town halls with angry constituents on the issue of gun violence. Crow is seizing on that political wave.

His first ad, called “Enough,” hit Coffman for taking money from the National Rifle Association, and highlighted the fact that his young children are starting to take part in active shooter drills at their elementary school.

Crow told Vox that his proposed gun control solutions are ones that both parties can get behind. The list of measures he’s backing includes universal background checks, a ban on military-style assault weapons, magazine limitations, closing the gun show loophole, overturning the Dickey Amendment, and imposing better checks on mental health before people purchase guns.

He’s hopeful this issue will resonate with voters, along with the rest of his platform — which includes economic inequality, affordable health care, and getting money out of politics (Crow has refused to take corporate PAC money and just announced a $460,000 fundraising haul for his last quarter, putting his total war chest over $1.2 million).

I talked to Crow about why he got into politics this year, why he decided to make guns such a prominent issue in his campaign, and whether he thinks the issue will translate to national politics in 2018. (He’s unsure.)

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ella Nilsen

What do you see as the biggest issues in your district right now?

Jason Crow

Economic inequality is always a big issue in this community. We see the cost of living and the cost of housing skyrocketing here. People are working for the most part, we have very low unemployment, but wages and benefits are really stagnant. We really need to address that issue of economic inequality of the middle class. The tax bill passed by Mike Coffman and his colleagues in Congress is a move in the wrong direction.

In addition to that, we’re hearing a lot about health care, the cost of premiums are rising fast, there are still way too many families and folks who are not covered here, and we just can’t have that. In 21st-century America, everyone should have quality, affordable care.

Gun violence is another issue. We’ve been hit very hard in this community in particular, with not only some of the larger mass shooting in recent history but a lot of street violence as well. I am hearing also, everywhere I go, young people, parents, children that are saying, “We need somebody to do something about this, this is a public health crisis, there’s fear in our schools, there’s fear in our streets, we want someone to lead.”

Mike Coffman is refusing to do anything about it. He takes more money from the NRA than any other representative in the state and won’t even listen to the constituents on this issue. So I’m standing up; I’m leading on this issue.

Ella Nilsen

I wanted you to dive a little deeper into one of those issues: gun violence. First of all, I wanted to know why you decided to take this on directly. Why did you decide to make this a central campaign issue?

Jason Crow

I took this on very early in my campaign, before the Parkland shooting. I was one of the first candidates in the country to seek and receive the endorsement of the Giffords organization. And here’s why: Between 1970 and present, there have been more people killed by guns in this country than by all of our wars combined. And I find that a massively troubling statistic.

When we have 33,000 people being killed by gun violence and our government isn’t even willing to study it and figure out sound policy to address that number, and isn’t willing to do something as simple as banning bump stocks in the wake of the shooting in Vegas, or doing universal background checks like we did in Colorado, that is a failure of leadership in epic proportions, in my view. The community is calling for action, they’re calling for leadership, and it’s something I’m very proud to stand up and say I’m not afraid to lead on it, and I’m going to try to work to address it.

I come to this issue from, I think, a pretty unique perspective. I was raised and grew up a hunter. When I was 12 years old, I hunted deer and duck and rabbit. I went into the military, became an Army Ranger, so I know about firearms. I’ve used them in war; I’ve had them used against me.

But at the same time, before I declared for Congress and long after my political career is over, I’m going to be an American. I’m going to be a member of this community, and I’m going to be a father. This is a problem that has to be addressed right now.

Ella Nilsen

Were you living in the district during the time of the Aurora shooting in 2012?

Jason Crow

Yeah. My wife and I have been in Colorado for over a decade, actually fourth-generation … kids are fifth-generation. And the shooting happened just a few miles from our home. We were in the community when it happened.

Ella Nilsen

How did that shooting impact the community? Did you notice a change in attitude toward guns before and after it happened?

Jason Crow

So Columbine happened here, so we were impacted very early on, in the current era of mass shootings. And of course, Aurora happened not too many years ago. I do feel like in the past year or so, we have really reached a tipping point on this issue.

It’s now gotten to the point where this constant flow of shootings in the country has now impacted people where we think about this all the time. Loud noises happen in a crowd and at public events, and instead of people thinking about, “Maybe someone dropped something,” people think about a gun.

I hear from students that when they have fire drills, the first thing that comes to their mind is whether or not there’s a mass shooting. I talk to parents about this when they drop their kids off at school in the morning. My wife and I are one of those parents, when we drop our kids off at school, what goes through our minds.

We’ve reached the tipping point as a country and community where this is now impacting our daily lives and our thoughts. I think this is one of the reasons why there is a sense of urgency around the dialogue and why people are calling for action and we’re seeing a sustained call to action on this.

Ella Nilsen

You mentioned you grew up a hunter and obviously know a lot about guns from your time in the military. When you are talking to constituents who own guns and who are pro-gun, how do you balance that?

Jason Crow

We released a policy proposal on this issue … some of the things it calls for is universal background checks, a ban on military-style assault weapons, magazine limitations, closing the gun show loophole, addressing “no fly, no buy,” overturning the Dickey Amendment, and better checks and mental health reforms. Those are the highlights. You know, dealing with this issue, I think it’s important that, like with any complicated issue, you address this from a value perspective.

I talk to gun owners about my personal experience and say I grew up a hunter and I know about firearms. I’m not coming to this issue as somebody that’s never used them and doesn’t know anything about them. I’m not trying to take away law-abiding citizens’ gun rights, and I’m not trying to take away the Second Amendment.

What I’m trying to do is address commonsense policy solutions that can make our country and our community safer, and that I think the vast majority of our community can get behind, and that I think can make a real difference. Just talking about it in that way is helpful to folks.

Ella Nilsen

What are the concerns you hear from people that are nervous about gun control legislation? When you meet with constituents, are you hearing the same concerns over and over again?

Jason Crow

I think some of those concerns are being fueled by NRA talking points. The biggest is when folks say, “This is just the start, this is a slippery slope here; you start with this, the next thing you know, you’re taking away my guns.” I tell them that’s not our intention; that’s not what we’re going to do.

Whenever this country has had a public health crisis or major challenge, we study it, we think of reasonable ways to do something about it, and we address it.

Automobile deaths are the perfect example. We haven’t taken away cars, but when we had a very large number of automobile deaths in this country, we studied the problem and we decided to have certain design things done on cars to make people safer. We can do this without infringing on people’s rights, but do it in a meaningful and intelligent way.

Ella Nilsen

I’m sure the gun issue is different in every district, and obviously, your district has a particular history with gun violence. I’m curious what your thoughts are on whether this will become a national political issue in 2018 and how this translates on a larger scale.

Jason Crow

I honestly don’t know on the national scale. Perhaps to what I said earlier, I think every district and every campaign is different, and I’m running a very local campaign. I’m running on local issues, what I’m hearing on the ground here in the Sixth Congressional District, what the folks in this district are telling me they want to have happen. I’m laser-focused on that. I don’t think I can really speak to what’s happening nationally in other races.

Ella Nilsen

I was wondering if you have given any thought to single-payer — there are a couple of bills floating around Congress about single-payer and a public option. Have you given any thought as to whether you would support one of those bills if it came up?

Jason Crow

I’m a proponent of universal care. I think we get there by a public option, inserting a public option into the individual marketplace and simultaneously fixing the problems with the ACA and making sure we address the increases in premiums and the coverage and affordability issues. I’ve come out and said that very early in my campaign and have been getting a great response with that.

Ella Nilsen

I was talking to one of your staffers yesterday about the district. The Cook Political Report rates it D+2, so I guess it’s a bit more of a swing district than, say, the Pennsylvania district where Conor Lamb won. We’ve been hearing a lot of hype about a potential blue wave in 2018, and I guess I’m curious what you’re seeing in terms Democratic enthusiasm in your district.

Jason Crow

I think it’s very high. I don’t feel like I’m one of those candidates that thinks there’s going to be a massive blue wave that’s going to wash all of us into office. I think every candidate has to make his or her own wave and campaign. That’s the mentality we’re taking here: We have to win this, and we have to win it on our own terms.

There are levels of enthusiasm that I have never seen in my lifetime. We show up to community meetings where normally eight or nine folks would show up. There are 30 or 40 people there; they show up with clipboards and they’re ready to call, they’re ready to walk, they’re ready to translate their energy and their enthusiasm into action.

And the local elections in our districts in November, Democrats swept most of the races and in some cases in very deep parts of the district. So I think there is energy and enthusiasm I haven’t seen certainly in my lifetime. Now the question is, how do we as candidates and campaigns sustain that and translate that into direct action between now and November?