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The mass shooting earlier this year at a high school in Parkland, Fla., has altered the political landscape. It's made the debate over guns central to this year's elections. Some Democrats in more conservative states are speaking openly about their desire for more regulation. And some Republicans in competitive primaries are stressing their defense of gun rights. To get ahead in the polls, some of them are taking it to extremes. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Johnny Kauffman reports.
JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: If you're going to talk about the debate over guns in Georgia right now, you have to talk about Delta Air Lines. It's Georgia's largest employer, and it's pretty influential in state politics. After the Parkland shooting, Delta ended a discount for travelers to the NRA convention. Republican Casey Cagle did not like that. He's the lieutenant governor and killed a measure that would have helped Delta.
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CASEY CAGLE: And we do have to stand up and fight and push back and do it in a very respectful way.
KAUFFMAN: Killing a potential tax break for Delta got Cagle this appearance on Fox News. It also won him the endorsement of the NRA. Cagle is running for governor. He's the frontrunner, and his Republican opponents are trying to stand out.
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BRIAN KEMP: I'm Brian Kemp. This is Jake, a young man interested in one of my daughters.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Jake) Yes, sir.
KAUFFMAN: In this ad, Kemp is sitting with his shotgun in his lap. The young man, Jake, is sitting next to him, and Jake reads off Kemp's policy platform. Then Kemp turns to him.
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KEMP: And two things if you're going to date one of my daughters...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Jake) Respect.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Jake) A healthy appreciation for the Second Amendment, sir.
KEMP: We're going to get along just fine.
KAUFFMAN: Kemp is Georgia's secretary of state. His ad drew a lot of backlash around the country. But that may help Kemp get the attention he needs, says Andra Gillespie. She's a political science professor at Emory University. In other Republican primaries, candidates are also trying to look more pro-gun than their opponents. Gillespie calls it...
ANDRA GILLESPIE: A gamble on the idea that the average Republican voter in a primary race is going to be more conservative and may be jazzed up about this particular issue because it is relevant in the news right now.
KAUFFMAN: But Madeleine Deisen says ads like Kemp's will alienate young people like her.
MADELEINE DEISEN: It just grosses me out, honestly. I know that's not super eloquent, but it just makes me feel gross.
KAUFFMAN: Deisen is a senior at a high school in suburban Atlanta. She helped organize a walkout there a month after the shooting in Parkland. Since then, Deisen hasn't stopped pushing for tighter gun regulations.
DEISEN: Just things like keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, things like banning bump stocks, things like red flag laws - those just seem so common sense to me.
KAUFFMAN: Deisen is an intern on a local Democrat's campaign, and she's encouraging her peers to get more politically involved. This year, she says, she's seen Democrats talking more about gun regulations on the campaign trail. And Gillespie, the professor at Emory, says that's not just happening in Georgia.
GILLESPIE: What you'll see is that there are Democrats who are running in somewhat more conservative places who may feel less inhibited about expressing the need for gun control.
KAUFFMAN: GOP governors in Florida and Vermont, for example, have signed gun control measures, and Gillespie says Republicans in some competitive areas may have to take similar positions if they want to win, especially if the students at the gun walkouts go to the polls. The high school senior Deisen thinks they will.
DEISEN: People know me at school as the person that's always bugging people about, like, voting and is always like early voting, register to vote. But, like, people who have never really talked about voting that much in the past have been talking about it more at school.
KAUFFMAN: Deisen is just nine days too young to vote this year. She's really bummed about it, but she says she'll get her chance soon. And as people her age get older, they won't forget what politicians said this year about guns. For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Atlanta.
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