ATLANTA – A candidate appears to shoot a rattlesnake with a revolver in one ad. Another “jokingly” intimidates a teenager who wants to date his daughter with a rifle. One person saws an AR-15 apart. Another candidate throws a gun into a fire.
If it feels like candidates are bearing arms on television more than usual – they are.
A new study from the Wesleyan Media Project shows nearly 12 percent of ads this campaign season contain a gun reference, continuing an upward trend.
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In the 2012 election cycle, there were fewer than 25,000 ad airings referencing guns for congressional, Senate or gubernatorial campaigns. This accounted for 1 percent of the total number of ad airings.
The 2018 cycle has already surpassed that number, with gun references in 56,000 ad airings.
In political races where there are a packed field of candidates, some are setting themselves apart by stepping into an explosive topic that sure to get attention – gun control. Political ads involving guns have been used by candidates – both Republicans and Democrats – as a sure-fire publicity generator that riles up constituents.
Atlanta-based media consultant Phil Kent attributed the uptick to “a spate of highly publicized shootings in the last couple of years.”
He cited the incidents in Parkland, Fla. and Las Vegas, Nev. as specific triggers to heating up the conversation around firearms on both sides.
“This has really gotten the debate going at kitchen tables all around the country,” Kent said. “Candidates naturally have to react to what their constituents are talking about.”
Democratic congressional candidate George Scott eked out a win Tuesday in Pennsylvania’s primary and pointed to his campaign ad, where he disarms and then throws a rifle into a fire, as a major influencer in his success.
He told Fox News he knew the issue of gun control “would resonate strongly with Democratic voters in the primary election.”
“There’s a lot of one-issue voters, and I think both parties are realizing that this is one issue that they have to be on top of,” he said.
As with any controversial issue, backlash is inevitable, and Scott was no exemption. He was called a slew of names, including ignorant and an NRA terrorist.
Democratic congressional candidate Karen Mallard in Virginia touted her support for gun control in a Facebook Live video, sawing an AR-15 apart.
A campaign staffer told Fox News they briefly removed the video after her page was flooded with threats and vicious commentary.
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Across the political aisle, Republican ads bearing arms also come under heavy criticism.
In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, some voters are calling the ad released by Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp – where he holds a gun in the direction of a teenager – insensitive.
“We work with a lot of survivors with Moms Demand Action, and I can’t imagine how they must’ve felt seeing a cavalier, kind of playful tone taken with guns,” said Page Rast, a member of Moms Demand Action.
But there is no doubt, Kent said, that in highly competitive races where it’s tough to stand out, gun ads “get your name out there.” That’s why controversial, gun-themed ads are effective – no matter the level of backlash.
“Both parties are trying to fire up [voters] and get a big turnout,” Kent said. “And so you want to rev up your base.”
He said all of the news coverage on Kemp’s ad is exactly what the candidate wants.
Kemp told Fox News he was surprised when his ad went viral, but he brushed off the criticism.
“The attention that it got, you can’t buy that kind of media,” Kemp said.
But we will likely see a shift in tone in television campaign ads come summer, according to Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what [candidates] do after the primaries are over,” Abramowitz told Fox News, as they start shifting more toward the middle in an attempt to win over swing votes.