NEW YORK - Gabby Giffords' political organization is focusing on six high-profile members of Congress this fall — House Speaker Paul Ryan, among them — in a 2018 midterm strategy that will use high school students to challenge Republican lawmakers it blames for blocking efforts to curb gun violence.
The group known as Giffords, named for the former Democratic congresswoman from Arizona who survived a shooting in 2011, says it plans to spend at least $10 million to influence the November elections. Seizing on the influential activism of student survivors of the Parkland, Florida school massacre, the group has begun planning "student summits" and high school voter registration drives in co-ordination with like-minded groups to engage students across the country.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has signed up more than 10,000 high school and college student volunteers in the days since the shooting that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
"A big part of our political program is going to be lifting these voices up and making sure voters are hearing directly from students who are literally protesting for their own lives," said Peter Ambler, Giffords executive director. "Our responsibility as an organization dedicated to safer gun laws is to take this extraordinary amount of grassroots enthusiasm you see around the country, this outrage and anger in the aftermath of Parkland shooting, and channel it toward 2018."
Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly have for years pushed Congress to enact gun control measures with little success. They shifted their focus to state legislatures in recent years, helping to strengthen background checks and domestic violence protections, among other modest protections. The group says it sees the midterms election as a moment to try to build on the momentum.
The group's initial "incumbent-defeat priority list" features all Republicans, most serving in suburban areas considered key battlegrounds in the Democratic Party's push to reclaim the House majority in November. The list includes:
— Ryan, a 10-term Wisconsin congressman who controls the House agenda as the chamber's top Republican.
— Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, whose district is close to the site of three mass shootings since 1999: Columbine, Aurora and Littleton.
— Rep. Vern Buchanan, whose district is northwest of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High
— Rep. Pete Sessions, of Texas, who is among the House's top recipients of campaign contributions from the gun lobby.
— Rep. Barbara Comstock, whose suburban Virginia district is home to the National Rifle Association's national headquarters.
— Nevada Sen. Dean Heller is the only senator on Giffords' list. Heller's state was the scene of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, which left 58 people dead and more than 800 injured.
Giffords and Kelly plan to visit each of the targeted districts in the coming weeks to rally voters against the Republican incumbents, Ambler said. Their group will also fund TV and online advertising, a series of local events and voter registration drives to keep the pressure on.
"Across this country, we will spend every day until the polls close reminding Americans of the power they have — the power to vote," Giffords, who still struggles with speech after being shot through the head, said in a statement.
Giffords' group has received $5 million in new donations in the last five days, Ambler said. Still, the surge of interest in gun control has made little impact on Capitol hill.
Just two weeks after the Parkland shooting, momentum to pass significant gun control measures in Congress already appear to be stalling. At the same time, the National Rifle Association and its allies are expected to pour money and energy into key races this fall as well. And while Heller, Comstock, and Coffman are considered particularly vulnerable in their re-elections, Ryan has not lost an election in two decades.
NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said it was too early to discuss the organization's midterm strategy. She declined to comment on other organizations' plans, but noted that the NRA would use its voice in the coming weeks and months to shape politics and policy.
"Our job is to defend and protect the 2nd Amendment," Baker said. "So as this debate moves forward and legislative proposals are introduced, we will weigh in, make our positions known, and let our members know what their lawmakers' positions are."
This story corrects that Buchanan's district is northwest of the Florida school massacre.